Shyness linked to reduced behavioral mimicry during conversation via heightened self-focused attention

Shyness linked to reduced behavioral mimicry during conversation via heightened self-focused attention

New research provides evidence that shyness is associated with reduced behavioral mimicry through increased self-focused attention during new social interactions. The findings have been published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

“Behavioral mimicry – the automatic copying of another’s actions – is thought to be adaptive as it signals social interest, increases interpersonal liking, and facilitates smooth social interactions,” said study author Kristie Poole, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo.

“Because shy individuals tend to experience nervousness during new social interactions, we wanted to examine if they would be less likely to display this adaptive social behavior, as well as the mechanisms that might account for this relation.”

In the study, 150 undergraduate students participated in a recorded Zoom session with an experimenter, who asked a series of five standardized questions and performed a pre-planned behavior while asking each question. To obscure the true objective of the study, the participants were told that the researchers were examining how personality traits were related to perceptions of online platforms.

The participants then completed an assessment of self-focused attention, in which they reported the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I was focusing on my internal body reactions” and “I was focusing on the impression I was making on the other person.” They also completed a measure of shyness.

After systematically coding the recorded Zoom sessions, the researchers found that 42% of participants mimicked the experimenter at least once. Participants with a higher level of shyness tended to also report a higher level of self-focused attention during the Zoom session. Those with a higher level of self-focused attention, in turn, were less likely to exhibit behavioral mimicry.

“Our study found that undergraduate students with higher levels of shyness were less likely to mimic the behaviors of an experimenter during an online social interaction which was accounted for by heightened levels of self-focused attention during the interaction,” Poole told PsyPost.

“We interpret this finding to suggest that shy individuals may focus their attention inwards during new social interactions (e.g., focusing on their racing heart), which may impede the attention that should be paid to the social partner, and ultimately play a role in lowering the likelihood that they are to engage in behavioral mimicry.”

Importantly, the findings held even after controlling for the frequency of participants’ spontaneous face touching. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.

“In our study, we examined relations between shyness, self-focused attention, and behavioral mimicry during an unfamiliar social interaction,” Poole said. “An interesting future direction is to examine whether a similar pattern of results unfolds in the context of interactions with familiar others such as friends or family. Because shy individuals tend to experience nervousness, particularly during new social interactions, it is likely that self-focused attention would not be heightened during familiar interactions, meaning that behavioral mimicry may not be affected in this context.”

“We measured behavioral mimicry during an active social context, given that the participant was expected and asked to respond to questions by the experimenter,” Poole added. “We hypothesize that in more passive social contexts where the individual can take on an observant role, shyness may be related to more behavioral mimicry as a means of blending in with the social environment and staying out of the spotlight. Some previous researchers have referred to this blending function of behavioral mimicry as ‘the chameleon effect.’”

The study, “Shyness, self-focused attention, and behavioral mimicry during social interaction“, was authored by Kristie L. Poole and Heather A. Henderson.


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