Psychology of Social Connection

Monkey see, monkey do (and monkey’s sister does too)

February 13th, 2021 · 7 Comments

[Ari]

The other day, I was walking down the street and I spotted another person walking towards me up ahead. They got closer and closer, seeming to walk in the middle of the sidewalk, unable to pick a side. Finally, the moment of reckoning happens. We both step to the same side. Then immediately to the other side. All accompanied with some awkward laughs and muttered apologies. Hopefully it stops there. BUT it doesn’t always. It just keeps happening, and sometimes I worry I’ll be eternally stuck awkwardly mirroring some random stranger. 

Something sort of like this. I can’t imagine anyone really wanting to be caught in this situation, outside of a rom-com. It’s NEVER as cute as they make it look. 

This whole situation is incredibly uncomfortable but slightly better when it occurs between someone you know. Even better if it’s a sibling you have a good relationship with. Whenever this happens with my brother and I, we wrestle and pretend like our encounter never happened once the moment passes. Sibling relationships will probably be the longest relationship a person has (in general). So with this extraordinary relationship, does this change mimicry interactions, specifically when compared to strangers?

What I have deemed “the sidewalk shuffle” may be slightly less awkward between friends when compared to strangers. Interactions between strangers are just that. Strange. But imitation and mimicry can actually make some interactions better. Mimicry is much more common than the average person probably thinks and makes these interactions smoother and can lead to increased feelings of affiliation (Leander et al., 2012). Mimicry tends not to happen to the same extent with strangers than with friends or closer acquaintances (Yabar, et al., 2006). People also feel inappropriate levels of mimicry when meeting people for the first time are off-putting, whether it is over-imitating or under-imitating (Lakin & Chartrand, 2003). Imitation and the “correct” amount are very context dependent. For example, being a part of an in-group, like both participants being Christian, can lead to increased mimicry and participants generally reporting a greater liking for the other in lab settings (Yabar, et al., 2006). 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, belonging to an outgroup (not quite dislike, just different) has been shown to actually decrease imitation in lab settings and may derive from an attempt to further distance themselves from those in the outgroup (Yabar et al., 2006).

Liking or disliking someone seems to have a very big impact on the amount of mimicry occurring in social interactions. With that in mind, the sometimes-complicated sibling relationships and mimicry are on a very different level. 

 

Siblings [Ellie]

Siblings are weird. There aren’t many people in the world that we can go from loving to hating (while also still loving) and back again in the span of about three seconds. As someone with six siblings, I have plenty of firsthand experience with the treasured and often complicated relationships involved with having brothers and sisters.

The concept of imitation takes on a different role with siblings than it does with others. As previously mentioned, social mimicry can be used as a technique in affiliating with others and determining, or trying to increase one’s own, likability (Lakin & Chartrand, 2003). We know most siblings have the tendency to imitate each other. Seriously, what parent hasn’t witnessed a meltdown or two that starts with “SHE’S COPYING ME!”? With siblings, however, there’s an additional influence that comes into play.

Studies have shown that siblings play a significant role in the social and cognitive development of infants and toddlers (Howe & Recchia, 2014). Importantly, kids learn a lot from their brothers and sisters by watching them and observing how they move about in the world (Barr & Hayne, 2003). I learned a ton from my sister growing up, however it wasn’t necessarily because she was an expert teacher. I watched her dance and learned to love dancing; I saw her helping our parents cook dinner and I wanted to help as well. My older sister had this powerful influence on me by being a relatable person whom I felt comfortable imitating, and consequently learning from. 

But how much of an influence can imitating siblings really have on development? It’s actually quite significant. Because infants show the ability to imitate at as early as six months of age (Collie & Hayne, 2003), older siblings are some of the first teachers in infants’ lives. The infants aren’t just learning unrelated skills via mimicry, though; they’re also perfecting the art of imitation itself. One study showed that children with brothers and sisters are better at imitating than those without. In the study, children with siblings had the tendency to observe and copy the behaviors of others without instruction more than only children did (Barr & Hayne, 2003). 

So, children with siblings are better imitators, why does this matter? The link between mimicry and affiliation indicates that good imitators would be better at creating connections with others and avoiding the off-putting nature of over and under imitation. In fact, infants who are strong imitators are known to be stronger social communicators, especially in terms of language understanding (Hanika & Boyer, 2019). Having infants develop this skill early on sets them up for success in social situations in the future.

Perfecting the social art that is imitation can have various benefits outside of increasing your winning percentage in Simon Says. Mimicry is vital in many different social interactions, and people have an intuitive sense of how much they like someone which is linked, at least somewhat, to imitation levels (Lakin & Chartrand, 2003). Mimicry with strangers and acquaintances is strongly studied in this affiliative context, but it takes on a strong role in the development of young children with siblings. Imitation for those children is a powerful learning mechanism, that teaches not only new motor skills but also social skills, like mimicry itself. With all of that said, I guess I should probably reach out to my sister and thank her for being there for me to copy all those years….

 

References

Awkward Encounter | The Amazing World of Gumball | Cartoon Network. (2016). YoutubeBarr, Rachel, & Hayne, Harlene. (2003). It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know: Older siblings facilitate imitation during infancy. International Journal of Early Years Education,11(1), 7-21. Collie, Rachael, & Hayne, Harlene. (1999). Deferred imitation by 6‐ and 9‐month‐old Infants: More evidence for declarative memory. Developmental Psychobiology, 35(2), 83-90. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/doi/pdfdirect/10.1002/(SICI)1098-2302(199909)35%3A2%3C83%3A%3AAID-DEV1%3E3.0.CO%3B2-S

Hanika, Leslie, & Boyer, Wanda. (2019) Imitation and Social Communication in Infants. Early Childhood Education Journal, 47(5), 615–626. Howe, Nina, & Recchia, Holly. (2014). Sibling Relations and Their Impact on Children’s Development. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, 1-8. Lakin, J. L., & Chartrand, T. L. (2003). Using Nonconscious Behavioral Mimicry to Create Affiliation and Rapport. Psychological Science, 14(4), 334–339. Leander, N. P., Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (2012). You Give Me the Chills: Embodied Reactions to Inappropriate Amounts of Behavioral Mimicry. Psychological Science, 23(7), 772–779. Yabar, Y., Johnston, L., Miles, L., & Peace, V. (2006). Implicit Behavioral Mimicry: Investigating the Impact of Group Membership. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 30(3), 97–113. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-006-0010-…

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7 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // Feb 13th 2021 at 4:33 pm

    Great first blog post to start the class out with, I really like the way you guys integrated your personal experiences and then backed it up with the science; it felt like learning about your lives through a scientific lens, which I think is a very engaging way to hook your reader and educate them without letting it sound dry!! The “sidewalk shuffle” is something that I have done and seen so many times it pains me to tell you how much first- and second-hand embarrassment I feel just thinking about it!! Ellie, a question that I still have would be how children who do not grow up with siblings, or who have dysfunctional relationships with their siblings, learn to mimic? Is a significant difference that can be seen later in life between children growing up in households with rich relationships and “good” people to mimic in terms of social communication skills later in life? Or do these children learn to mimic just as well, just not good or healthy behaviors from less stable adult and sibling models? Have a great weekend and amazing work!! -Lara

  • Anonymous // Feb 13th 2021 at 6:05 pm

    Hi Ari and Ellie,

    Very intriguing blog combining science with our lives! Your blog inspires me to consider mimicry in specific contexts, close groups and sibling relationships respectively.
    I can get the same feeling when I immersed myself in a lovely friend surroundings or in my family. The increased mimicry seems less weird and awkward to the extent that we cannot even be aware of but feel happy about it. Are there any hypotheses on the probable reasons? I guess it is probably owing to the fact that we feel being accepted in these groups and therefore worry less about others’ thoughts or unpleasant biases?
    For mimicry around siblings, I’m surprised to see how much a sibling relationship can help us with our social skills. What a pity I do not have siblings to mimic! But I’m a little curious about how much and in which areas exactly those relationship can help with our future social connection building with others. And are there possibilities that some children with strong characters may not bother to imitate and follow their own roads or do the opposite? (As in the series Young Sheldon, each kid leads a distinct characteristic and manner😀.)

  • Anonymous // Feb 15th 2021 at 1:14 pm

    Hi Ari and Ellie,

    Loved your blog and the connections you made between mimicry/imitation and your relationships with siblings! I definitely relate to both wrestling with my sister when we get in each other’s way and that being far less of a strange experience than with strangers, as well as her observing and imitating me when I cook at home.

    Questions that came to me reading your blog are about the influence of context dependent factors across families. For example, does our greater ability to imitate generate specifically in the context of siblings to only children, or could a child that has gone to pre-school from an extremely young age surrounded by so many potential imitation targets end up on the same level/tendency across development as those children with siblings?

    And.. similarly to what Lara said, could our greater tendency to imitate be affected by whether we perceive our connection with our siblings to be strong, and could there be a difference depending on the age gap between us and our siblings?

    I wonder if my sister would have a greater tendency or greater ability to mimic and imitate me if I wasnt 8 years apart from her (or vice versa)!

    Either way, you both really give us so much to think about! Amazing work guys! ☺️

    -Vanessa

  • Kara Evans // Feb 15th 2021 at 2:49 pm

    Hello Ari and Ellie,

    To begin, I could just *feel* the cringe of the “stranger shuffle” as I began reading your post and played the scenario out in my head. I then thought about how two strangers imitating their walking sides—a seemingly irritating, time-consuming struggle—actually brings a slight laugh from both parties. Backing this mutual experience with the research you referenced, it makes total sense how imitation might actually help cushion the awkward tension of the moment with mutual feelings of affiliation and, for lack of a better phrase, the “we’ve all been there” mentality. As for the added creativity of these encounters with siblings, I wonder if this is any result of the repetition of the scenario. I don’t know the frequency of “the stranger shuffle” but it seems like the probability of running (literally) into this problem is higher as people spend more time crossing paths (literally part 2). Every time this happens, does the encounter lose its “newness” and imitation actually plays a smaller role as strangers become friends?

    I also found your discussion of sibling relationships particularly compelling for developing imitation habits at a young age. I had a similar question as Lara when reading—I wonder how altering the sibling dynamic (i.e. positive to negative, frequent to infrequent, nonexistent) changes the development of mimicry as a psychological skill in communication. Could the sibling connection be substituted in a case where a sibling is not as immediately affiliated? Finally, I was drawn to the brief mention of the “opposite” of imitation. If someone does not want to affiliate with a person, is has research established a negative version of mimicry? For the sibling example, if a sibling is misbehaving (ex. having an emotional outburst) and the other child, having seen the sibling’s behavior, wants to show (ex. their parent) through unusually extreme good behavior that they are nothing like them (unaffiliated), could there be some psychological underpinning that is the definitional opposite of mimicry?

    I really enjoyed expanding on last week’s discussions of mimicry through your posts. Great blog post to begin the year!

    -Kara

  • Anonymous // Feb 15th 2021 at 8:13 pm

    Hi Ari and Ellie!

    I loved reading your blog post this week it was such an awesome balance of person experiences and antidotes with the science behind it all! I fully laughed out loud reading about the stranger side shuffle– you’re so right, it’s one of the most awkward situations to find yourself in. I stress about it happening pretty much anytime I’m walking past a stranger…

    I was also wondering a similar thing as one of the other comments– does mimicry decrease when we feel more comfortable around a person? In class we talked about how mimicking our parents / families felt very unnatural, but could that be linked to our comfort level around them? I was also thinking about affiliation and conditionality in this– does our mimicry change depending on how secure we feel in a relationship?

    I also totally related to the sibling imitation– my little brother used to imitate me all the time when we were little which was nice sometimes but also he loved to do it to annoy me… I was curious also about how social mimicry changes depending on the amount/relationships with siblings. Specifically, since I only have a younger sibling if there is a difference in social mimicry later in life or during development for the oldest sibling vs younger ones.

    You guys gave me so much to think about and it was so amazing to read this after our discussions last week! 🙂

  • Anonymous // Feb 15th 2021 at 8:14 pm

    Oops that comment was from Tess my name didn’t show up! ^^

  • Anonymous // Feb 16th 2021 at 3:44 am

    Hi Ari and Ellie,

    Thanks for a great blog post! I loved the personal touch you both added to the empirical evidence you shared. I felt informed and entertained. I particularly loved that you focused on the sibling dynamic. It’s a very unique type of relationship, so it was interesting to learn about it in terms of the research on mimicry and imitation.

    Your post made me think about my own relationship with my siblings. Particularly, my younger sister. I was 14 when my sister was born, and I remember wondering how she was able to imitate us so well despite not having a conceptual understanding of our actions. If I were to play peek-a-boo with her, she was able to cover and uncover her eyes as well even at an age when if I tried to use words to explain to her what to do, she would not yet understand. It’s fascinating that the ability to imitate develops even before language! It shows how important non-verbal communication must be even in our interactions as adults.

    Your post makes me wonder if there are differences in our mimicry depending on the type of relationship. For example, does mimicry and imitation change with siblings versus with parents? Does the age difference between siblings change how well the younger sibling learns to mimic? Do older siblings learn anything from their younger siblings about imitation? Thanks again for your post! I learned a lot and left with a lot of interesting questions to think about.

    Tyler

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