Research by Rosellina Ferraro
Consumers often feel like they are in control of the purchasing process. But
in fact there are many ways in which consumer behavior is influenced without the
consumer’s knowledge and outside their control. Mimicry—that human tendency to
mirror the behavior of others around us—has some significant effects on consumer
choice and preference. How this happens is the subject of a new study by
Rosellina Ferraro, assistant professor of marketing, with co-authors Robin J.
Tanner, Tanya L. Chartrand and James R. Bettman of Duke University; and Rick Van
Baaren of the University of Amsterdam.
The authors examined the ways mimicry influences both product preference and
the way consumers choose products. There are two pathways by which mimicry can
influence people: the mimicking consumer path, when consumers echo the
consumption behavior of others, and the mimicked consumer path, where the
consumer is the one being echoed by another.
In one experiment, participants watched a video that included a person eating
one of two types of crackers. Some participants were given access to the same
two snacks when they were watching the video. Other participants did not have
access to snacks. Of those provided with crackers, the participants’ snacking
behavior mimicked that of the person in the video.
Cracker preferences were also measured by a survey given before and after the
experiment. Ferraro found that the participants’ preferences were influenced by
the behavior of the person on the video, but only if the participant had access
to the same snack and was able to mimic the behavior he or she saw onscreen.
Mimicking the behavior affected the participants’ product preference.
Consumers also appear to like a product more when it is introduced to them by
a mimicker. In a second series of experiments, participants were part of a
mock-market research interview for a new sports drink. In some instances the
interviewer mirrored the posture and movements of the participant after a short
1-2 second delay. The interviewer also mimicked the key elements of the
participants’ responses, using identical words and similar phrasing in replies.
In other instances the interviewer either maintained a neutral body position or
took on the opposite position of the participant, and verbally responded to
participants with general or neutral phrasing. Participants who were mimicked
physically and verbally were more likely to prefer the product.
In a follow-up experiment, the mock-market research interview was for a snack
product, and the interviewer either indicated that he was invested in the
success of the manufacturer’s product, or that it didn’t matter to him. Ferraro
found that participants who had been behaviorally mimicked displayed a more
positive attitude toward the product, especially if they think the mimicking
person has a stake in the outcome.
This was a counter-intuitive finding for Ferraro. “In that case you imagine
that people would think, okay, this person is trying to change my mind,” says
Ferraro. “What we found is that actually consumers end up liking the product
more in that case. What seems to be happening is that mimicry creates a rapport,
and so you want to help that person who is invested in the product.”
These processes are automatic, and happen below a consumer’s conscious level
of thought. Ferraro believes these findings add to the growing body of research
that suggests that consumer behavior is often driven by processes outside of
“awareness, intent and control.”
These studies took place in a controlled environment, not in a chaotic retail
setting full of outside influences. But there may be situations where mimicking
behavior may be effective, particularly in an environment where there is
prolonged face-to-face contact with a consumer. Car salespeople negotiating with
consumers or business-to-business sales personnel might find mimicry useful in
creating a rapport with the consumer, so that he or she feels invested in
helping the salesperson to succeed. But it will only work if the consumer
remains unaware that he or she is being mimicked, warns Ferraro. “Once the
person is aware that they are being mimicked, it would interfere with the
process, because then you start thinking about it,” she says.
“Of Chameleons and Consumption: The Impact of Mimicry on Choice and
Preferences” was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. For more
information about this research, contact