More than we are consciously aware, we instinctively imitate one another. When around each other we synchronize our body movements, speaking styles and facial expressions. There’s an automaticity to our reactions. But why? Many scientists believe it’s because of our desire to be liked, included in the group. And, at a more primitive level, to survive.
Thus our ability to mimic is
vital to our capacity to connect well with others. It is not “just” a way of communicating nonverbally. It enables us to recognize others’ expressions - and thus their emotions. It helps us empathize.
Ability to Imitate Can Lead to Empathy
We are more likely to be shunned when that capacity is hampered. This was discovered by the pencil experiment conducted by American social psychologist, Paula M. Niedenthal. Two groups were asked to detect changes in the facial expressions of other people. One group was prevented from freely moving their own faces by holding a pencil between their teeth. The pencil restricts the ability to frown, smile, frown or make many other facial expressions. Thus limited in their ability to mimic the expressions they saw in others, those in that group were much less able to recognize changes in others’ emotional facial expressions than participants in the other group. In short, they are less likely to read others’ emotions and to respond in ways that appear trustworthy, likeable or credible.
Perhaps Social Intelligence Begins in Infancy
This dance of imitation to connect starts early. Even one-month-old babies imitate facial expressions. If you look at a baby and open your mouth, the baby will open her mouth. If you stick out your tongue, the baby will often do the same. That’s one of the many reasons that babies who are ignored, such as in some orphanages, suffer from abandonment and low emotional intelligence.
Why Partners Look More Alike Over Time
Imitative behavior helps explain why long-term partners tend to look more alikeover time. Couples who were together for 25 years resembled each other more than random pairs of the same age and than newly-wed couples. John Barg and his
colleagues surmise this might be because they frequently observe and imitate each other’s most common expressions, “producing over time the similarity in facial lines between the two partners.”