Verbal mimicry in adversarial settings

Verbal mimicry is the way that speakers in a conversation (and, to some extent, writers in email or tweets) copy the language use of the other participants. Verbal mimicry is a strong, fast, and largely unconscious process that tends to create a shared environment for cooperation. Mimicry can be done consciously, with a bit of practice, and those being mimicked tend not to notice that it is happening. In fact, in many social settings there is an unconscious expectation of mimicry, and failing to mimic, either unconsciously or deliberately, can make the other participants uncomfortable without quite realising why.

But what if the participants in the conversation do not have the same interests and so don’t both/all want to create a shared environment for cooperation? Results are only preliminary, but the situation seems to be a lot more complicated.

In settings that are inherently positive-sum, such as many negotiations, the person who mimics best tends to do better than the other person, but the effect of the mimicry also tends to increase the take for both people, so the other person also wins to some extent. In other words, the best mimicker (unconsciously or deliberately) tends to get the biggest slice of the pie, but the pie also tends to be bigger than it otherwise would have been. So the best strategy for all parties is to mimic as well as they can. (Chameleons bake bigger pies and take bigger pieces: Strategic behavioral mimicry facilitates negotiation outcomes by William W. Maddux, Elizabeth Mullen,and  Adam D. Galinsky, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.)

In settings that are zero sum (if I get more pie you must get less), for example police interrogations, mimicry by interrogators tends to blind them to deception by the subject (You Want to Know the Truth? Then Don’t Mimic! Marielle Stel, Eric van Dijk, and Einav Olivier, Psychological Science). Mimicry by interrogators is often advocated because it creates a kind of artificial social relationship that can lead to confessions or successful hostage negotiations (Linguistic Style Matching and Negotiation Outcome, Paul J. Taylor and Sally Thomas, Negotiation and Conflict Management Research) but it has its risks. The best strategy, therefore, for interrogators seems to be not to mimic; the best strategy for subjects is to mimic if the interrogator doesn’t, and to anti-mimic if the interrogator does.

Of course, many situations are neither quite positive-sum or zero-sum. For example. a police officer might be after information rather than a confession which is more like a negotiation. So the decisions about strategy are not straightforward. But the outlines of strategies are becoming clearer.


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