We recently discussed factors that can influence the outcome of job interviews for better or worse. So far, we have focused mostly on the content involved. What we haven’t yet discussed is in some ways even more interesting: How very subtle behaviors influence social interactions.
As famously noted by Charles Darwin when we see someone express an emotion, we tend to mimic their expression. For example, if a person smiles at us, we tend to smile back. Mimicry behaviors appear to be universal across people, including young children, and even some animals. While somewhat under voluntary control, it is sometimes more like an uncontrollable reflex—certain behaviors (yawning, for example) just seem to be contagious.
Mimicry is also controllable, and can potentially be used to your advantage. A series of clever experiments found that mimicking subtle behaviors of another person (little things like rubbing your face if they rub theirs, shaking your foot if they shake theirs) can significantly increase how much they like you, even if you do it deliberately.
Being mimicked by another person can promote social bonds, but there is often a line that can be crossed. We dislike or resent people who are too similar to us, and in fact often sabotage them given the opportunity.
Some subtle behaviors seem to have a relatively primal and inherent meaning. For example, posture is a signal of dominance or submission. “Open” postures that take up a lot of space signal dominance, whereas “closed” postures signal submission. A very interesting series of experiments demonstrated that people tend not to mimic the “open” or “closed” posture of others, and if they do, the interaction is uncomfortable and liking is reduced. However, when people adopt a complimentary posture (submissive if the other person is dominant; dominant if the other person is submissive) the interaction is more comfortable and liking is increased. This happens regardless of whether the complementarity is spontaneous or deliberate.
One of the more fascinating findings in recent years also has to do with dominant and submissive postures. These experiments demonstrate that adopting an “open” (dominant) pose can alter hormone levels and decrease aversion to risk, increase pain tolerance, and even improve performance in interviews. It seems that acting dominant in this subtle way can actually make you more dominant. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk presents a nice overview of this research. Sometimes “fake it ’til you make it” is good advice after all.