Consider a situation where you meet a new person who shares similar interests and attitudes to yours. You will probably like the person a little more than someone who has different views or opinions. But, how will you signal your positive attitude and that you want to get to know each other better? As psychologists have noted, an affiliative attitude makes people more likely to imitate each other behavior. This type of imitation is referred to in psychology as mimicry 

Mimicry includes behaviors of many kinds, including foot-tapping, face touching, bodily postures, and even spoken word repetition. An intriguing phenomenon is also that people mimic the facial expression of emotions. All of this seems to signal affiliative intents and high sense of connection to those who are similar.

Researchers have shown that people tend to mimic mainly affiliative emotions (such as smiles), while antagonizing ones (such as disgust or anger) are less likely to be mimicked. In a similar vein, hostile or competitive social situations result in reduced mimicry, compared to cooperative situations. Finally, socially similar people (such as group members, peers, people with similar attitudes) are more frequently mimicked than those of different social groups.

What About Physical Similarity?

We were interested in whether a greater tendency for emotion mimicry would occur when the observed person resembled oneself physically. 

From an evolutionary point of view, such similarity may be a sign of relatedness, which in turn reinforces behaviors that serve to support kin. In this sense, mimicry would act to strengthen ties between potentially related individuals. Other claims suggest that people tend to prefer what is familiar to them - like famous classical melodies, well-known dishes, or family members' faces. Here, a similar person would mean someone who is a safe and secure choice. Interestingly, sensitivity to physical resemblance can occur even when it is very subtle and not noticeable at first glance. 

A common way to observe emotional mimicry is to measure the activity of the facial muscles. For example, a device that measures tiny (even unnoticeable) muscle movements can detect changes in smile muscle activity. This muscle is activated when people observe other people’s smiles and is relatively relaxed when observing anger. In contrast, the anger muscle that lowers the eyebrows is typically tensed in response to anger and relaxed when the participant is watching other people smile.  

In our study, we observed facial muscle activity in response to faces expressing happiness or anger, that either did or did not resemble participants. To create the facial resemblance we used computer technology to morph a picture of the participant's face with a picture of unknown individuals. The results show that participants mimicked self-resembling faces more than those non-resembling. Similarly, happiness was more likely mimicked than anger. Finally, it occurred that the anger of non-resembling faces evoked a more divergent, smile-like response. Importantly, except in a few cases, participants did not notice any special similarity between themselves and the faces they viewed. 

Thus it seems that people have a preference to imitate behaviors not only of people who are socially similar to them but also those who are physically similar. What is more, mimicry can be modified by very subtle cues of physical resemblance whose presence a person doesn’t even notice.

For Further Reading

Olszanowski, M., Lewandowska, P., Ozimek, A., Frankowska, N. (2022). The effect of facial self‑resemblance on emotional mimicry. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 46(2), 197-213.

Natalia Frankowska is a social psychologist at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, Poland, and a member of the Center for Research on Biological Basis of Social Behavior (currently works in two labs: Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory and Laboratory of Peripheral Psychophysiology). Natalia mainly studies the biological basis of social behavior and perception of sounds. Recently, she began new lines of research in evolutionary psychology that include pathogen avoidance and mate choices.

Michal Olszanowski is a cognitive psychologist at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, Poland, and a member of the Center for Research on Biological Basis of Social Behavior and the head of Laboratory of Peripheral Psychophysiology. Michal studies the psychophysiological basis of social behavior in the context of emotional mimicry. His current project is 'Emotional mimicry in the social context.'