The Chameleon Outcast: When Social Mimicry Goes Awry

Being a chameleon is good only if your colors are changing in the right direction.

Two people are talking to each other. One nods his head to emphasize a point. The other follows suit, just a moment later. One crosses his foot over his knee. Soon, the other is doing the same. One shifts to the right. The other, across from him, shifts to the left, mirroring the movement. A few minutes later, the two get up in unison, exchange a few words, and walk away in opposite directions.


The chameleon effect in regular interaction

Chances are, you have just observed a successful social interaction: one participant was mimicking—unconsciously—the physical actions of the other. And as a result, the mimickee was likely drawn to the mimicker—provided, of course, that he himself did not note the behavioral reflection. This is the famous chameleon effect, described in detail by Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh in 1998. In essence, the effect is one of nonconscious person-to-person mimicry, a tendency to match posture, facial expressions, mannerisms, and even speech patterns to those of our social environment (most often, a single conversation partner). As a result of this mimicry, interaction partners tend to like each other more and work together more effectively. They also tend to be more empathetic. Call it, if you will, a social glue of sorts.

However, for the effect to work, the nonconscious part is crucial: in a regular interaction, the behavior must be passive and unintentional. Indeed, if someone’s attention is drawn to it, the opposite effect becomes equally likely.

The phenomenon is simple; the social and interpersonal repercussions profound. But now, new studies suggest that in a larger social situation, where an outside observer watches a dyadic interaction—such as the one that opened this piece—unfold, the effect may not always be positive. If the person being mimicked is perceived in a negative light, the one doing the mimicking will pay a social cost for mirroring him. In other words, being a chameleon is good only if your colors are changing in the right direction.

When the chameleon effect goes wrong

In a series of experiments forthcoming in Psychological Science, researchers at UC-San Diego first had people watch two taped interviews each, one where the interviewee mimicked the interviewer and one where he did not. The interviews further differed in the nature of the interviewer: one group of participants saw videos where the interviewer was cordial, regardless of mimicry, and the other, where the interviewer was condescending. It is in this latter group where the potential downside of the chameleon effect came out.

Whereas in the set-up with the cordial interviewer, the expected effect was found—namely, interviewees were ranked as more competent—in the condescending interviewer scenario, those who mimicked were seen as less competent than those who didn’t – and as less competent overall than those who mimicked in the cordial scenario. But with non-mimickers, there was no difference at all. Mimicking someone who was ill-perceived by an outsider observer thus carried with it a significant social cost—even though it might have paid off, potentially, in the interaction itself.

In a follow-up study, the researchers manipulated one further item: before participants watched the videos—this time, with a cold and abrupt interviewer—one group was told that the interviewer was active in humanitarian work; the other was told nothing. That information actually served to counteract the negative effect: whereas those who were told nothing continued to view the mimicking interviewee as less competent than his non-mimicking counterpart, those who had positive information on the interviewer did not.

Knowing when to mimic

Mimicry is usually good – but sometimes, it can carry hidden costs. Not only mimicking, but knowing when and whom to mimic seems to be essential for the optimally successful social player. And that requires a greater perception of the social situation, the players involved, and the specific goals of the interaction at hand. Do you care more about your interaction partner liking you? If so, mimic away. Are the opinions of others more important? In that case, if you are in a wider social setting, evaluate who you are mimicking and why much more carefully.

A good chameleon knows when to camouflage—but also when to remain just as he is. Not every background is equally conducive to positive cover. 

If you'd like to receive information on new posts and other updates, follow Maria on Twitter @mkonnikova

[Photo credit: Male Leopard Chameleon; Creative Commons, from col.hou flickr photostream]

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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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