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Mutual mimicry is one of the most important mechanisms for sustaining social interaction. But can the so-called social mimicry have negative emotional consequences for the person being mimicked? Moreover, can the experience of being mimicked during an interaction increase our feelings of guilt? Paweł Muniak and Wojciech Kulesza answer these questions in an article published in Social Psychological Bulletin.
Guilt is one of the more unpleasant yet one of the most important emotional experiences available to us. On the one hand, research shows that feeling guilty can motivate us to take responsibility for accidental or intentional mistakes and to repair relationships important to us. The emotion of guilt can also often help us avoid making similar mistakes in the future and prompt us to engage with others.

On the other hand, feelings of guilt are not uncommonly associated with an increase in depressive symptoms, anxiety, or behaviors aimed at punishing others or ourselves. The feeling can also lower our self-esteem and overall motivation. Because guilt is so multifaceted and linked to diverse consequences, it has attracted the attention of researchers trying to understand its nature.

Given the described negative consequences of intense guilt, some researchers have set their sights on identifying strategies to reduce the consequences of feeling guilty. Among them are Paweł Muniak and Wojciech Kulesza, authors of the paper “The Impact of Mimicry Behavior on Guilt” recently published in Social Psychological Bulletin. The authors hypothesized that one way to reduce excessive guilt may be through social mimicry (mutual imitation).

Mimicry as social glue
Where did the idea that it is mimicry that can reduce guilt? The answer is related to the fact that social mimicry, like guilt, acts as “social glue”, fostering relationships. Research shows that both imitating others and the experience of being imitated help build a sense of belonging and result in closer social bonds. Therefore, being imitated can inform us that we are part of a community, even when we make mistakes and feel guilty about it.

To test their assumptions, the authors conducted six experimental studies based on a similar design. In each study, participants were invited to the laboratory to take part in a study divided into two parts. In some of the studies, the authors would begin by inducing guilt in participants. One example is by intentionally and falsely informing them that some of the data collected from previous respondents was lost because of something they have done. In other studies, participants were asked to recall and describe a situation in which they felt particularly guilty.

Then, in the second part of each of the six studies, the participants were invited to talk about the education system in Poland. In doing so, the participants were informed that this interview was unrelated to the previous study they had participated in, although it was conducted by the same person as the “previous” study. In the experimental condition, participants were mimicked in various ways (verbally, non-verbally, or both) by the person asking questions. In contrast, in the control condition, the interviewer sat up straight and did not imitate the participant’s behavior. After the second part of the study, all participants were asked to complete a questionnaire measuring current feelings of guilt.

Imitation as a guilt reinforcer
The researchers used several forms of social mimicry to test which type of imitation would be the most effective antidote to guilt. Unfortunately, in all studies, these hypotheses did not work. It was found that across the studies, participants who experienced mimicry were equally or significantly more likely to declare feeling guilty than those in the control conditions. Put differently, mimicry not only failed to reduce guilt, but often increased it.

According to the researchers, these unexpected results suggest that feelings of guilt may serve a motivating function in repairing broken relationships. At the same time, the experience of being mimicked may further reinforce the need to rebuild what was damaged by the mistakes made. These results may be particularly important to psychotherapists – they suggest that imitation, often used as a therapeutic technique, is not always a good solution, as it can make it worse for the people in therapy. The results of the discussed studies are also a good example that our research predictions – although based on theoretical and empirical grounds – are not always right.

More information:
Muniak, P., & Kulesza, W. (2024). The Impact of Mimicry Behavior on Guilt. Social Psychological Bulletin, 19, 1-27.

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