Have you ever spent the weekend with a close friend—watching movies, playing video games, doing stuff you both love doing—and noticed near the end of it that you’ve apparently morphed into the same person over the course of a couple days? Science says that’s not just your imagination—we really do begin to imitate the ones we love.
Cognitive scientists Lara Maister and Manos Tsakiris at the University of London learned through studying the facial movements of pairs of friends and romantic partners that our actions mirror those of the people in our life.
They studied 19 people and the way they interacted during experiments with video recordings of both a romantic partner of at least six months and a platonic friend of the same gender as their partner. The researchers found that couples are far more likely to automatically mimic one another’s movements, but platonic girl-and-guy-friend pairs do, too.
“Participants were told to open their mouth or close their mouth as fast as they could on a signal,” Maister said to Rewire. “But as they were doing this task, they were shown videos of their partner (or) their friend doing the same or the opposite movement. If a participant has a strong uncontrollable tendency to mimic their partner, we would find that they are slower and make more mistakes when they see their partner make the opposite movement. … This effect was not so strong when people were viewing a friend instead of their partner, which suggests that they didn’t have such a strong uncontrollable urge to mimic their friend; they could more easily ignore the friend’s actions to focus on their own.”
That might be because the line between two people in a romantic relationship can get a lot more blurry than the line between two people in a friendship. You’re less likely to see a friend as an extension of yourself than the person you’re romantically entangled with. You’re also probably spending more time with your romantic partner than your buddy.
“Our tendency to automatically imitate our partners movements, even though we are not aware of it, may play a really important role in keeping us feeling closely bonded,” Maister said. “Scientists believe that imitation is caused by our brains ‘merging’ our representations of ourselves with our representations of another person; in other words, parts of our brain respond to the other person’s movements exactly like it does to our own. So our research might suggest that in certain parts of the brain, your partner is seen as ‘part of you.'”
The way you feel about your partner can affect the extent you imitate them, too. The more anxious you feel about your relationship ending—the greater the fear of abandonment you associate with your person—the more likely you are to mimic them, probably as a way to create feelings of closeness between the two of you, Maister said.
“When you want to feel closer to someone, or want them to like you, you unconsciously copy their movements and posture—for example, tapping your foot, sitting a certain way, et cetera,” she said. “And scientists have shown that this does have a beneficial effect on people’s perception of you; people generally like you more, trust you more and feel more affiliated with you if there has been subtle automatic imitation going on during your interaction.”
Funnily enough, the opposite is true for our friends. The more anxious you feel about a friendship ending, the less likely you are to imitate that friend. Feeling anxious about a relationship produces icky feelings—and maybe because you’re less invested in the friendship than you are in your romantic relationship, and imitating the friend makes you feel closer to him or her, you’re willing to cut off the imitation to create some distance and ease the bad feelings. It could also be because it feels inappropriate to be that anxious about a friendship, especially if you’re not single and the friend is the same gender as your partner, the researchers wrote. It could be that we shut down mimicking to create a healthier-feeling distance between ourselves and our friends.
So, if you’re worried you and your partner are getting a little too enmeshed, right down to the way you act, take a step back and examine how you’re feeling about the relationship. It could be that you’re stressed about the possibility of a breakup.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.