The Chameleon Effect in Psychology: Definition & Example

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  • 0:01 Definition of the…
  • 1:42 Experiment on Chameleon Effect
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson goes over a series of experiments designed to test the phenomenon known as the chameleon effect, or a psychological theory that suggest we mimic the behavior of people we're with in social settings. We'll talk about an important experiment done by John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand.

Definition of the Chameleon Effect

Do you find yourself adopting the mannerisms of a good friend if you spend a lot of time with her? Maybe you start to take on a Boston accent after spending time with a family member who lives there?

Unconsciously mimicking the facial expressions, hand gestures, and other behaviors is something that humans do quite regularly. We're very apt to unconsciously mimic the behaviors of the person we're with. We might do this for a number of reasons, but psychologists believe there is one particularly interesting reason why: it has the potential to make people like us better. When we're getting along well with someone, we often find ourselves mirroring their behavior, which the other person picks up on, and this in turn reinforces positive feelings.

After all, as the old saying goes, 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' But this old cliché is actually getting at a phenomenon that psychologists term the chameleon effect. Two psychologists, John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand, inspired by decades of psychological research demonstrating that when we perceive someone else's behavior we're likely to behave in a similar way, decided to test this phenomena further. They were especially curious about the idea that this might increase affinity between people. Their hypothesis was that when we mimic someone's behavior that person will like us more.

Chartrand and Bargh define the chameleon effect as the unconscious mirroring or mimicking of the behavior of people we're with. The pair wanted to test whether this so-called natural effect could be replicated in an experimental setting. Let's talk about the experiment they devised to put the chameleon effect to the test.

Experiment on Chameleon Effect

Chartrand and Bargh designed a few different experimental scenarios to test their hypothesis. First, the researchers created a situation where students were asked to meet with one of the experimenters who were all in on the experiment, known as confederates.

In the first experiment, the researchers were looking to see if, in fact, mimicking behavior would occur. The confederates and the students sat on opposite sides of a desk in a room and went over a series of photographs together. Confederates engaged in a number of different behaviors, including foot tapping, touching their faces, or smiling. Results showed that all of these behaviors increased in the participants when the confederates engaged in them.

The next part of the experiment set out to test what this might mean. In other words, is there a purpose to mimicking people's behavior or is it simply a product of social interaction? To test this, participants were sent into a different room with another confederate, where the pair would discuss a photograph. This time, confederates would mimic some of the participants' behaviors and not of others.

Afterwards, all participants were asked to rate how much they liked the confederate. The researchers found that participants who had been mimicked rated the confederate higher than those who had not been mimicked. These results back the researchers' hypothesis that mimicking increasing affinity between two people, and thus goes beyond simply being a product of social interaction.

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