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Mirroring is mimicking the body language of the person you are talking to. It is sometimes recommended for people to help "break the ice."

But how does it create a positive impression? What do studies indicate about the likely reaction of the person who is being "mirrored?"

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Mirroring is one of the components of "active listening." It indicates an empathy or sympathy with the person you are communicating with. These mirrored gestures are in some measure a natural reaction when people are in close proximity. You may have noticed the "contagious" effect of someone crossing their arms, or leaning on an elbow, when several people are in a room together.

Mirroring of facial gestures such as nods or smiles is also a natural response to true interest, and understanding. Attempting to consciously mimic facial expressions can give the impression of inattention, however.

Mirroring can "break the ice," but it should be a natural process, not a "staged" strategy.

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    You could improve this answer by supporting your statements with corroborating documentation, as requested in the question. – Catija Aug 11 '17 at 4:36
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Mirroring is a process we do naturally and without thinking about it. But apparently, people can be trained to mimic this behavior. But, I would think that it can backfire if done poorly.

Scientific research has been conducted on this. But recognizing that this is not an academic site, I will assume that none of us are neuroscientists. Perhaps this article from Forbes will serve our purposes here.

Here are some extracts. What it is and helps answer how does it create a positive impression?:

We all do it. It’s called limbic synchrony, and it’s hardwired into the human brain.

Babies do it even before birth; their heartbeats and body functions take on a rhythm that matches those of their mothers. As adults, we do it when we are talking with someone we like, are interested in, or agree with. We subconsciously switch our body posture to match that of the other person – mirroring that person’s nonverbal behavior and signaling that we are connected and engaged. [Emphasis mine]

What do studies indicate about the likely reaction of the person who is being mirrored? (same source):

It’s a proven method. In a recent experiment, volunteers were (ostensibly) asked for their opinions about a series of advertisements. A member of a research team mirrored half the participants, taking care not to be too obvious. A few minutes later, the researcher “accidentally” dropped six pens on the floor. Participants who had been mimicked were two to three times more likely to pick up the pens. The study concluded that mimicry had not only increased good will toward the researcher (in a matter of minutes), but also prompted an increased social orientation in general.

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Disclaimer: I've learned to use mirroring in meetings and negotiations. Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don't. It's definitely been used on me. I think it has some effect but I'm not sure how much. I'm a skeptic so I'll put my devil's advocate thoughts in as well.

Why might it work?

Mirror Neurons on Wikipedia has over 100 citations, many are scientific articles.

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.13 Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

But mirror neurons have not yet been shown to be responsible for the psychological effects ascribed to mirroring.

Why do people think it works?

Postural Mirroring and Intergroup Relations (Marianne LaFrance, 1985)

Both results are interpreted as evidence that postural mirroring is an obvious yet unobtrusive indicator of openness to interpersonal involvement.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that it makes other people more open.

What reactions might people have?

When It's an Error to Mirror: The Surprising Reputational Costs of Mimicry (Kavanagh et al, Psychological Science, 2011)

Mimicry and imitation can facilitate cultural learning, maintenance of culture, and group cohesion ...

Mimicry in dyadic interaction can be observed by third-parties, and the conclusions these observers draw have consequences for one's reputation in their eyes. ...

In particular, if one mimics the wrong individual, observers could judge one less competent than if one had not mimicked. As a result, mimicry may have reputational costs that at times make not mimicking one's partner a superior social strategy.

Does mirroring "work"?

Pentland, Alex. "Social dynamics: Signals and behavior." International Conference on Developmental Learning. Vol. 5. 2004.

In this paper I develop an automatic measurement method for quantifying some of these non-linguistic social signals, and describe how these measurements can be used to form powerful predictors of behavioral outcome in some very important types of social interaction: getting a date, getting a job, and getting a raise....

When one participant displayed mirroring behavior, the other would usually join in (74% of the time). ...

For low-status participants the use of mirroring was most important.

So mirroring might get you want you want but might also lead people to see you as low-status.

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Mirroring someone doesn't always result in positive reception. I'm not a professional in any relevant area, but I've talked to enough people and read enough discussions on the internet to know this:

When someone approaches you and starts obviously trying too hard at using your unique phrases, gestures or language, it feels like they're making fun of you and your behavior. Or that they're trying way too hard to get on your good side, but are awkwardly failing. Sometimes you can't tell if it's one or the other, and it creates an unpleasant ambiguous situation, especially when there are other people around.

Imagine getting a new job, meeting your new colleagues for the first time, and one of them starts mirroring you ambiguously hard like that. Don't be that person.

If you're unsure if you can pull it off subtly enough, don't risk putting yourself in a situation when your mirroring target might suspect ill intent. Find other means to become good friend/coworkers.

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Mimicry is typically a subconscious empathy response. Meaning that at a primal level we're wired to empathize and respond in kind. A very basic example of this is the "contagious yawn".

The contagious yawn is a pretty well known involuntary mimicry, that was even "confirmed" by Mythbusters. Not only has it been observed in humans, it has also been studied in primates, dogs, and between humans and dogs.

I would guess that most people have observed this phenomenon anecdotally... You yawn, then spontaneously someone near you does the same.

What's perhaps most telling about this phenomenon is that true psychopaths don't yawn in response to others.

Researchers at Baylor University had 135 subjects take the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised (PPI-R) and then exposed them to a contagious yawn experiment (this, apparently, is a thing, which is awesome). The Coldheartedness part of the psychopathy scale was strongly tied to whether the person yawned. The more coldhearted a person was (i.e., the less empathetic), the less likely they were to catch a yawn.

Extrapolating from this small example of mimicry one might say that it is at least an indicator of one's ability to empathize.

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Mirroring is inborn in most of us, and helps to achieve subconscious rapport. Most people do it, but neither party is normally aware on a conscious level that it is being done (unless it's being done in an unnatural way).

The behavior has been noted for at least 40 years by psychologists and anthropologists. Even higher social primates like chimpanzees and bonobos do it (I first learned about this when I read The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, over 20 years ago).

This is a function of a special kind of neuron in the brain popularly referred to as "mirror neurons." But some people don't seem to do this automatically, either because of the way their brain is wired, or because of social self-consciousness.

Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) literature deals with this extensively, and provides lots of guidance on how to do it in a natural-seeming way. The two most important tips are:

  • Don't mirror gestures and postures precisely, but in a loose and approximate way.

  • The mirroring shouldn't take place immediately, but some time after
    the other party has shifted their own behavior.

Finally, mirroring should also copy (approximately) the vocal tone, energy, and pace of the other.

Since you explicitly asked for citations/references, here is a pretty good online article about mirroring and mirroring technique. You can download a more academic study of the phenomenon here.

  • I thought neurolinguistic programming has been pretty conclusively debunked. – HDE 226868 Aug 15 '17 at 2:37
  • I think NLP is a pretty mixed bag: it has some valuable insights, but doesn't seem to qualify as the deep science that many of its practitioners and promoters claim for it. But they do explicitly talk about mirroring techniques, and I thought that that part of NLP was useful. – Curt Aug 15 '17 at 2:40

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