What Is the Chameleon Effect?

the chameleon effect

Verywell / Laura Porter

What Is the Chameleon Effect?

The chameleon effect is a phenomenon that finds us mimicking the mannerisms, gestures, or facial expressions of the people we interact with most often. It causes you to subconsciously make behavioral changes to match the behavior of people in your close social circles, or even strangers.

The phenomenon gets its name for the chameleon, an animal which changes the appearance of its skin to blend into any environment it finds itself in. 

You may have noticed a friend or loved one using your favorite catchphrase or hand gestures or found yourself doing the same. This is the chameleon effect and action and it’s completely normal. Almost everyone has experienced it at some point in their lives.

Why Do We Do It?

Mimicking a person, whether unconsciously or not, is something we all do regularly. While we might mimic a person consciously for the fun of it, it’s unclear why we mimic other people subconsciously.

Researchers believe we do it because it has the potential to positively influence our social interactions with others. When you mirror the behavior of a person close to you, the person whose behavior is being mirrored notices it and this causes positive feelings toward you.

It's worth noting, the term "mimicking" can sometimes take a negative intonation, but it simply means copying and in most cases is done harmlessly. 

Impact of the Chameleon Effect

The chameleon effect is an unknowing mimic of other people’s behaviors, and it’s perfectly normal. If you live or interact with another person or people for long enough, you are bound to pick up some of their behaviors, mannerisms, facial expressions, and gestures. You might particularly notice the chameleon effect in couples who have been together for a long time, or best friends. 

The chameleon effect has been shown to have a positive impact on human social interactions. According to Tanya L. Chartrand and John A. Bargh, two psychologists who were the first to explore the phenomenon, very empathetic people are more likely to imitate others than people who aren’t.

When a person is truly empathetic, they pay more attention and form deeper connections with the person they are interacting with, which makes them more likely to mimic.

However, when people who aren’t very empathetic attempt to mimic someone else, the gesture can ring false and have the opposite effect of the social advantages one typically gets because of the chameleon effect.

How Mimicking Works

There are two ways in which people tend to mimic others when it comes to bodily gestures. The most common method in the chameleon effect is mirrorwise.

When a person mimics another person mirrorwise, they do the opposite of what the person they are mimicking does. So if the mimicked moves their right hand in a certain gesture while talking, the mimicker will move their left hand while making the same gesture.

You can also mimic another person anatomically. Here you make the same exact movements as the person you are mimicking. So if the person often taps their left foot while thinking about something, you’ll also tap your left foot. 

While outlining the differences between these two methods of mimicking might seem small, research shows that they both have different social consequences.

One study asked participants to interact with a digital human in a virtual environment. Participants who were mimicked anatomically reacted more negatively towards the digital human than those who were mimicked mirrorwise or not mimicked at all.

This shows that if you tend to mimic a person anatomically even though it might be unconscious, it can cause the person who is being mimicked to interact with you more negatively. 

How to Do the Chameleon Effect

The chameleon effect comes naturally to people and isn’t something you should practice. However, it’s important to be aware of its social advantages and embrace the phenomenon.

Whether it’s in a room full of strangers or with people you’ve known for years, the chameleon effect can make you come across as more likable and sociable. It’s OK to consciously adopt the chameleon effect to be more comfortable and make people relate more intimately with you in some social settings.

You can use the chameleon effect to your advantage. A study in which a researcher mimicked the gestures and mannerisms of a group of participants, found that the participants who were mimicked by the researcher found them to be more likable than those who weren’t.

Common mannerisms and behaviors that are typically mimicked include: 

  • Facial expressions 
  • Accents 
  • Pitch of voice 
  • Tone of voice 

When you mimic a person, they see you as someone who understands the world in the same way they do. This makes you more relatable and easier to communicate with.

However, just let the chameleon effect come naturally to you. When it becomes blatant to a person you are communicating with that you are mimicking them, they might misinterpret your intentions as an insult or mockery and this will result in the opposite of the desired effect you wished to achieve.

When you mimic a person intentionally you are more likely to do so anatomically, which means you’ll match the person's gestures exactly, and this has proven to have negative social consequences.

Here are some tips to help you cultivate the chameleon effect in a more positive way: 

  • Learn to be more empathetic of other people .
  • Become a better listener. Listen to understand and not just to respond when speaking with another person.
  • Do it for the right reasons. Forcing the chameleon effect in order to gain certain advantages over a person can easily be seen through.
  • Seek to build a healthy relationship with the person you are communicating with. 
5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chartrand TL, Bargh JA. The chameleon effect: The perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1999;76(6):893-910.

  2. PsyBlog. The chameleon effect. November 19, 2009

  3. Chartrand TL, Bargh JA. The chameleon effect: the perception-behavior link and social interaction. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1999;76(6):893-910.

  4. Casasanto D, Casasanto LS, Gijssels T, Hagoort P. The reverse chameleon effect: negative social consequences of anatomical mimicry. Front Psychol. 2020;11.

  5. Casasanto LS, Gijssels T, Casasanto D. The Reverse-Chameleon Effect: Negative social consequences of anatomical mimicry. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. 2011;33(33).

By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.