Artful persuasion depends on eye contact, but not just any
kind. If one person prefers brief glances and the other is busy staring deeply,
then it may not matter how good the jokes are or how much they both loved
“Juno.” Rhythm counts.
Voice cadence does, too. People who speak in loud, animated
bursts tend to feed off others who do the same, just as those who are lower key
tend to relax in a cool stream of measured tones.
“Myself, I’m very conscious of people’s body position,” said
Ray Allieri of Wellesley, Mass., a former telecommunications executive with 20
years in marketing and sales. “If they’re leaning back in their chair, I do
that, and if they’re forward on their elbows, I tend to move forward,”
Psychologists have been studying the art of persuasion for
nearly a century, analyzing activities like political propaganda, television
campaigns and door-to-door sales. Many factors influence people’s
susceptibility to an appeal, studies suggest, including their perception of how
exclusive an opportunity is and whether their neighbors are buying it.
Most people are also strongly sensitive to rapport, to
charm, to the social music in the person making the pitch. In recent years,
researchers have begun to decode the unspoken, subtle elements that come into play
when people click.
They have found that immediate social bonding between
strangers is highly dependent on mimicry, a synchronized and usually
unconscious give and take of words and gestures that creates a current of good
will between two people.
By understanding exactly how this process works, researchers
say, people can better catch themselves when falling for an artful pitch, and
even sharpen their own social skills in ways they may not have tried before.
“Really good salespeople, and for that matter good con
artists, have known about these skills and used them forever,” Jeremy
Bailenson, a psychologist at Stanford, said. “All we’re doing now is measuring
and describing more precisely what it is they’re doing, whether consciously or
Imitation is one of the most common and recognizable
behaviors in the animal kingdom. Just as baby chimps learn to climb by aping
their elders, so infants pick up words and gestures by copying parents. They
sense and mimic peers’ behavior from early on, too, looking up at the ceiling
if others around them do so or mirroring others’ cringes of fear and anxiety.
Such behavioral contagion probably evolved early for
survival, some scientists argue. It is what scatters a flock well before most
members see a lunging predator.
Yet by drawing on apparently similar skills, even in
seemingly trivial ways, people can prompt almost instantaneous cooperation from
In a recent experiment, Rick van Baaren, a psychologist at
Nijmegen University in the Netherlands, had student participants go to a lab
and give their opinions about a series of advertisements. A member of his
research team mimicked half the participants while they spoke, roughly
mirroring the posture and the position of their arms and legs, taking care not
to be too obvious.
Minutes later, the experimenter dropped six pens on the
floor, making it look like an accident.
In several versions of this simple sequence, participants
who had been mimicked were two to three times as likely to pick up the pens as
those who had not.
The mimicry had not only increased good will toward the
researcher within minutes, the study concluded, but it also prompted “an
increased pro-social orientation in general.”
That orientation applies to far more than dropped pens. In a
study due out in the spring, Robin Tanner and Tanya Chartrand, psychologists
at Duke, led a research team that tested how being mimicked might affect the
behavior of a potential client or investor.
The team had 37 Duke students try out what was described as
a new sports drink, Vigor, and answer a few questions about it. The interviewer
mimicked about half the participants using a technique Dr. Chartrand had
developed in earlier studies.
The technique involved mirroring a person’s posture and
movements, with a one- to two-second delay. If he crosses his legs, then wait two
seconds and do the same, with opposite legs. If she touches her face, wait a
beat or two and do that. If he drums his fingers or taps a toe, wait again and
do something similar.
The idea is to be a mirror but a slow, imperfect one. Follow
too closely, and most people catch it — and the game is over.
In the study, the researchers set up the interviews so each
student’s experience was virtually identical, except for the mimicking.
None of the copied participants picked up on the mimicry.
But by the end of the short interview, they were significantly more likely than
the others to consume the new drink, to say they would buy it and to predict
its success in the market.
In a similar experiment, the psychologists found that this
was especially true if the participants knew that the interviewer, the mimic,
had a stake in the product’s success.
“This is somewhat counterintuitive,” Dr. Chartrand said in
an interview. “Normally, you’d expect when people realize that someone was
invested in a product and trying to sell it to them, their reaction would be
attenuated. They’d be less enthusiastic.
“But we found that people who were mimicked actually felt
more strongly about the product when they knew the other person was invested in
Any amiable conversation provides ample evidence of this
subconscious social waltz. Smiles are contagious. So is nodding, in an amiable
Accents converge quickly and automatically. A country chime
or an Irish whistle can seemingly infect the voice of a New Yorker in a 10-minute
“I especially find myself falling into a Southern accent,
which is crazy,” Mr. Allieri, the telecom executive, said. “I’m from Boston.
“But I think what good salespeople really do is pick up on
physical cues and respond to them without thinking much about it.”
It is one thing to move like a naturally synchronized
swimmer through the pools of everyday conversation without thinking, however.
It is another to deliberately employ mimicry to persuade or seduce.
Dr. Bailenson, the Stanford psychologist, has been testing
the effects of different forms of mimicry by programming a computer-generated
figure, an avatar, to mirror the movements and gestures of people in a study.
He has found that his subjects pick up the mimicry when it
is immediate and precise. If the avatar is slightly out of sync, however —
waits four seconds, for instance — then the mimicking goes unnoticed, and the
usual rules apply. The virtual creating comes across as warm and convincing, as
if controlled by another human.
“The point is it’s a delicate balance to get it right, and I
suspect that people who are good at this know how to do it intuitively,” Dr.
Or they have developed ways to engage their skills
Veldon Smith, a musician and legendary salesman living in
Centennial, Colo., who spent 30 years in the automobile parts business before
retiring a few years ago, said:
“One thing I always did, I learned as much as possible about
a client before I visited, what their problem was, what they were worried
about. Then I would go in with a story about myself being in the same
“So when I walked in, I was in exactly the same frame of
mind as the customer. I was immediately on the same wavelength. Everything else
kind of flowed out of that.”
One reason subtle mimicry is so instantly beguiling may be
that it draws on and, perhaps, activates brain circuits involved in feelings of
In several studies, Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago,
has shown that some of the same brain regions that are active when a person
feels pain also flare up when that person imagines someone else like a loved
one feeling the same sting or ache.
A similar process almost certainly occurs when a person
takes pleasure in the good fortune of a friend or the apparent enjoyment of a
conversation partner, Dr. Decety said.
“When you’re being mimicked in a good way, it communicates a
kind of pleasure, a social high you’re getting from the other person, and I
suspect it activates the areas of the brain involved in sensing reward,” he
Social mimicry can and does go wrong. At its malicious
extreme, it curdles into mockery, which is why people often recoil when they
catch of whiff of mimicry, ending any chance of a social bond. Preliminary
studies suggest that the rules change if there is a wide cultural gap between
two people. For almost everyone else, however, subtle mimicry comes across as a
form of flattery, the physical dance of charm itself. And if that kind of
flattery doesn’t close a deal, it may just be that the customer isn’t buying.
Everyone has the right to be charmed but not seduced.
© 2008, The New York Times Company