Is nonverbal mimicry an important tool in eliciting information?

nonverbal mimicry two people chatting looking very close friendly

CREST doctoral researcher Abbie Maroño is investigating the effects of interpersonal closeness on nonverbal mimicry during face-to-face interactions.

Human beings are distinctively social creatures, and our relationships shape how we think, feel, and behave. Generally, the closer we feel to someone, the more willing we are to divulge personal information to them. Closeness has been found to be a better predictor of willingness to share information than observable features such as age and sex, or the frequency of interaction (Wiese, Kelley, Cranor, Dabbish, and Zimmerman, 2011). With this in mind, being able to influence another’s feelings of closeness could be a valuable way to increase their willingness to divulge information in interviews. My research investigates whether or not nonverbal mimicry could be used during face-to-face interactions to do just that.

What exactly is closeness?

Closeness is more than just intimacy. Arons’ (Aron et al., 1992) definition of closeness emphasises an interconnectedness of self and other: the closer we feel towards our relationship partner, the more they become included in our self-concept.

As closeness increases, so too does a sense of ownership over the partner, along with an increase in shared identity and interconnectedness.

But what is nonverbal mimicry? And how does it relate to closeness?

Human beings unconsciously adapt their behaviour to the social environment, sometimes as a way to signal cooperation and liking. This is done, in part, through the imitation of someone’s behaviours, often referred to as nonverbal mimicry. Indeed, mimicry is often described as a ‘social glue’ that helps bind people together and facilitate interpersonal interactions.

as teachers and students, patient and therapist, and adolescents and their counsellors

It has been shown to associate with better interactions among pairs such as teachers and students, patient and therapist, and adolescents and their counsellors. In each of these, as unconscious nonverbal mimicry increases so do ratings of closeness and trust.

With this in mind, nonverbal mimicry can be hypothesised to be the behavioural instantiation of interpersonal closeness.

What is new about my research?

Research regarding interpersonal closeness and mimicry tends to focus on interactions between strangers or romantic partners. Groups such as acquaintances are often ignored. Understanding how mimicry varies across different types of relationships is vital in understanding what drives our feelings of closeness.

Understanding how mimicry varies across different types of relationships is vital in understanding what drives our feelings of closeness.

One key issue with this is that it only focuses on the individual being mimicked, when research has shown that mimicry is a two-way system, and a bidirectional effect of mimicry occurs in relation to feelings of closeness. Thus, the present study will use true dyadic interactions.

Why is this research important?

As mentioned above, how close we feel towards our interaction partner effects our willingness to engage in conversation, and willingness to share information. This refers to both personal and sensitive information.

Consider an interview setting, in which a suspect or witness is hesitant to share important case-related intelligence. In this setting, the ability to increase feelings of closeness and trust may increase a willingness to share information.

My research aims to find out whether it is possible that if the interviewer was properly trained in mimicry they could use it as an information elicitation technique.

By the end of 2019 I will have completed the first experimental study of my PhD. Results of this study will illuminate whether nonverbal mimicry does increase according to relationship closeness. I will then be carrying out my second study, based entirely on the outcome of study one.

Abbie Maroño is a CREST-funded PhD student in our eliciting information programme. She is based at Lancaster University.

This blog is one of a number written by CREST’s Early Career Researchers whose work contributes to CREST’s mission of understanding, countering and mitigating security threats.

You can see all the blogs in the ECR series: