When we talk to a companion, psychologists tell us, we unconsciously mirror their posture, behavior, and speech patterns — monkey see, monkey do. New research from University of Rochester shows how certain social factors can modify this automatic behavior. When we judge someone to be similar to us, we more closely align ourselves with their speech patterns. And, those of us with a compromising nature also will more meticulously mimic others.

Why exactly do we imitate those we see? When it comes to speech, psychologists say this may be part of our overall capacity for language. Imitation of sentence structure and intonation facilitates communication. Two people will find it easier to understand each other if they share a conversational style. Similarly, mirroring another’s gestures and postures builds rapport. We like those who are similar to ourselves, so this unconscious social technique effectively greases the wheels of friendship and makes our life easier.

A group of researchers led by Dr. Florian Jaeger, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences, recently explored the psychological phenomenon. What drives this behavior? Their experiment began with participants listening to recordings of politically-charged diatribes (with specific sentence structures). After this, the participants were given simple illustrations — a waitress giving a banana to a monk, for example — and asked to describe them.

In their descriptions, most participants mimicked the sentence structure they’d heard during the listening portion of the exercise. For instance, hearing the recorded speaker say “Congress is giving too much money to corporate executives,” the participants were more likely to describe the illustration as “The waitress is giving a banana to the monk” — placing the object (banana) before the person — as opposed to saying “The waitress gives the monk a banana” — reversing object and person and using a different verb structure.

Yet, the researchers observed something more. The participants who agreed with the sentiments of the speaker aligned their descriptions more closely than those who disagreed. Plus, those participants who described themselves as compromisers tended to mirror the speaker more nearly than the others.

Interestingly, the researchers say that these mediating social factors may be as unconscious as the automatic mirroring behavior itself. “Even strategic social modulations of linguistic behavior in no way presumes conscious control,” wrote the researchers in their published study, explaining how past research “has shown that many aspects of social perception are subconscious.”

In particular, they cite research exploring the effects of subliminal exposure. As an experiment, participants viewed unfamiliar ideographs which appeared on a screen for just five milliseconds before random dots appeared. (Each ideograph, then, flashed by so quickly the participants did not consciously see it.) Next, the participants viewed an entire set of ideographs — the familiar ones (seen subliminally) plus some unseen new ones — and then they rated how much they liked each.

Consistently, the participants liked the ideographs they'd already seen (if only subliminally) more than the new unseen ideographs. Liking what is familiar, it would appear, may be as unconscious as mirroring others.

Source: Weatherholtz K, Campbell-Kibler K, Jaeger TF. Socially-Mediated Syntactic Alignment. Language Variation and Change. 2015.