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The mysteries of mimicry

Sep 01, 2008

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Research by Rosellina Ferraro

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.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.

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 rferraro@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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