Scientists as well as laypeople have long known that extroverts tend to do a better job of connecting with other people, especially when they first meet them.
Yet until recently, no one’s been able to pinpoint what exactly extroverts do that helps them build strong social ties.
Now, new research from Duke University, cited by the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that the answer is surprisingly simple: It’s a matter of mimicry, or copying the body language of your conversation partner.
The research consisted of two small studies, both of which were filmed with a hidden camera.
In the first, researchers recruited 84 female, 18- to 30-year-old volunteers from a university. They were told that they’d be collaborating on a task with another person. What they didn’t know was that their “partners” were actually working for the researchers.
Next, the researchers told half the volunteers that the task they were about to do had the best results when they got along well with their partners; the other half weren’t given these instructions. Then, both groups were told to take turns describing photographs while they sat in chairs at 90-degree angles from each other. During the task, the undercover partner continuously touched her hair and face.
In the second study, 100 female student volunteers were paired up with undercover partners and asked to take turns with that person coming up with words that fell within a certain category. Again, the undercover partner touched her hair and face.
While the tasks were going on, independent observers recorded how much time the volunteers spent touching their hair and face and rated how well the volunteers and their undercover partners got along.
At the end of the tasks, the volunteers filled out a personality assessment designed to measure extroversion. They rated themselves on how much adjectives like “bold,” “energetic,” “shy,” and “bashful” described them.
Two fascinating findings emerged: People who described themselves as being more extroverted did indeed do a better job at building rapport with their partners, but only when they were told that what they were doing worked better if they got along well. And people who described themselves as being more extroverted tended to mimic their partners. In fact, the difference in rapport was almost entirely explained by how much extroverts engaged in mimicking.
Previous research has found that people tend to say they like each other more when they mimic each other’s body language.
But the extroverted people weren’t necessarily doing it on purpose: Interestingly, the researchers noted that extroverts weren’t aware that they were turning up the charm by copying their partners’ behaviour.
They write: “The processes underlying mimicry occur automatically and nonconsciously, which reinforces the idea that mimicry may represent an evolutionarily hardwired system of affiliating that is dialed up and down by motivational goals.”
Another important implication of the study, according to the researchers, is that extroverts aren’t simply more socially skillful in general, but may use it when they’re motivated to try and form personal connections. “Instead, we found that [extroverts] used mimicry to connect with other people only when they were motivated by an affiliation goal,” the researchers write.
Because these studies were relatively small, the researchers acknowledge that it’s important to replicate them with bigger groups.
Assuming that research yields similar results, it could be empowering for introverts, or for those who feel like they aren’t especially skilled schmoozers. Extroverts aren’t doing anything complicated — subtly mimicking your conversation partner’s behaviour isn’t especially hard to do. But this strategy could potentially make a big difference in the impression you make, so it’s certainly worth trying.
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