The influence of group membership on cross-contextual imitation
Psychon Bull Rev
The influence of group membership on cross-contextual imitation
Oliver Genschow 0 1
Simon Schindler 0 1
Oliver Genschow 0 1
0 University of Kassel , Kassel , Germany
1 Department of Experimental Psychology, Ghent University , Henri Dunatlaan 2, 9000 Gent , Belgium
Research on mimicry has demonstrated that individuals imitate in-group members more strongly than outgroup members. In the present study, we tested whether such top-down modulation also applies for more extreme forms of direct mapping, such as for cross-contextual imitation settings, in which individuals imitate others' movements without sharing a common goal or context. Models on self-other control suggest that top-down modulations are based merely on a direct link between social sensory processing and imitation. That is, perceived similarities between oneself and another person is sufficient to amplify a shared representation between own and others' actions, which then trigger imitation. However, motivational accounts explain such findings with the assumption that individuals are motivated to affiliate with others. Because imitation is linked to positive social consequences, individuals should imitate in-group members more strongly than out-group members. We tested these two theoretical accounts against each other by applying a crosscontextual imitation paradigm. The results demonstrate that in-group members are more strongly cross-contextually imitated than out-group members the higher individuals' motivation to affiliate with the in-group is. This supports motivational models but not self-other control accounts. Further theoretical implications are discussed.
Imitation; Top-down modulation; Group influences
Imagine yourself being in a conversation with one of your
friends. You are drinking a beer and are talking about the
recent developments in your job as you suddenly realize that
you are sitting in the same position as your friend: Both of you
have your legs crossed and are leaning backwards in the
chairs. In the literature, such engagement has been linked to
(for an overview, see Chartrand & Dalton, 2009)
(for an overview, see Heyes, 2011)
. Interestingly, the
degree of mimicking or imitative behavior critically depends
on social factors
(Lakin & Chartrand, 2003; Lakin, Chartrand,
& Arkin, 2008; Leighton, Bird, Orsini, & Heyes 2010b; Wang
& Hamilton 2012; Wang & Hamilton 2015)
. Past research has
put forward two different models to explain such social
topdown influences: models on self-other control
Shah, 2014; Teufel, Fletcher, & Davis, 2010)
(Chartrand & Dalton, 2009; Wang & Hamilton 2012)
Going one step further, in the present research we tested
whether group-membership of the target person moderates
imitative behavior in an extreme form of direct mapping—that
is, in a cross-contextual imitation setting, in which individuals
imitate another person without sharing a common goal and
context. Crucially, within this paradigm we tested the
predictive validity of the two models on top-down influences
against each other.
Mimicry and automatic imitation
Mimicry is usually defined as individuals’ tendency to imitate
others. It has been suggested that such mimicking behavior
takes place non-consciously in the sense that individuals are
not aware of their mimicking behavior
(Chartrand & Bargh,
1999; Chartrand & Dalton, 2009)
. Within mimicry research,
researchers distinguished between the mimicry of a wide
range of different behaviors such as facial expressions
(Bourgeois & Hess, 2008; Dimberg, 1982)
. characteristics of
(Cappella & Planalp, 1981; Giles & Powesland,
1975; Webb, 1969, 1972)
. postures (LaFrance, 1982).
. or simple movements
. Mimicry most often has been studied by social
psychologists, using naturalistic paradigms that usually
measure the frequency of mimicking acts in interactions between a
participant and a confederate
(Chartrand & Bargh, 1999;
Lakin et al., 2008; Stel, Blascovich, et al., 2010; Stel, van
Baaren, et al., 2010; van Baaren, Janssen, Chartrand, &
Dijksterhuis, 2009; van Baaren, Horgan, Chartrand, &
. In contrast, research in cognitive
psychology focuses on automatic imitation, which can be defined as the
laboratory model of mimicry (Heyes, 2011). In an exemplary
experiment, participants respond with two different
movements to two different symbolic cues while seeing either a
congruent or incongruent movement on a computer screen.
Research has shown that in such a conflict task, individuals
respond faster and with fewer errors to congruent, compared
to incongruent trials
(Brass, Bekkering, & Prinz, 2001; Brass,
Bekkering, Wohlschläger, & Prinz, 2000)
. BAutomatic,^ in
this context, refers to the fact that participants’ movements
are influenced by the observed movements, although their
responses are directed to the independent cues on the screen.
Interestingly, and in contrast to mimicry, individuals are aware
of the other movement’s influence (Heyes, 2011). Less
important for our research and different from mimicry and automatic
imitation are conscious imitation paradigms, in which
participants are—in contrast to mimicry and automatic imitation
paradigms—explicitly instructed to imitate another person
(Leighton, Bird, & Heyes 2010a; Losin, Cross, Iacoboni, &
Despite the slightly different phenomena and research
methods, theoretical accounts on mimicry as well as those
on automatic imitation assume similar processes. It is
generally agreed that automatic imitation and mimicry are based on
a direct mapping of observed and executed actions. For
example, Ideomotor Theory
(Greenwald, 1970; Prinz, 1990,
—a theory shaped in cognitive psychology—proposes
that the observation of an action evokes the same
representation as its execution. This common representation then
eventually triggers the execution of the observed action. Similarly,
social psychologists put forward the so-called
perception-behavior link to explain mimicry
(Chartrand & Bargh, 1999;
Chartrand, Maddux, & Lakin, 2005; Dijksterhuis & Bargh,
. Such a link assumes that merely perceiving a specific
movement evokes the same representation as the execution of
this movement, thus facilitating the execution of the perceived
movement. Support for both of these theoretical models
comes from neurophysiological research including
singlecell recordings in monkeys
(Di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi,
Gallese, & Rizzolatti, 1992)
(Gazzola & Keysers,
2009; Keysers & Gazzola, 2010)
. or motor TMS
Walsh, & Heyes, 2007; Fadiga, Fogassi, Pavesi, &
. demonstrating that the observation and the
execution of an action share similar motor areas.
Based on the idea that the observation of a movement
elicits the same representation as its execution, research on
cross-contextual imitation demonstrated that imitation also
occurs across different contexts and goals
Florack, 2014; Genschow, Florack, & Wänke, 2013)
. In a
series of experiments, Genschow and colleagues (2013;
2014) led participants to taste a drink while watching either
a cross-contextually compatible or incompatible
drinkingmovement. Participants in the compatible movement
condition watched a video of an athlete in a gym lifting a barbell.
Participants in the incompatible movement condition watched
the same athlete stretching the barbell. Watching the lifting
movement activated the compatible movement increasing
participants’ drink intake, because they more often raised the
cups to their mouth. In contrast, watching the stretching
movement activated a drinking incompatible movement decreasing
participants’ arm movements towards the mouth resulting in a
decreased drink intake. Ruling out the alternative explanation
that this cross-contextual imitation effect is due to an abstract
approach-avoidance priming, the authors found no effects on
the evaluation of the drinks and only an effect on drink intake
when participants were able to imitate the movements (e.g.,
drinking from cups) but not when participants were not able to
imitate the movements (e.g., drinking from a tube). While
such cross-contextual imitation is somehow different from
automatic imitation and mimicry, it also shares similarities
with both constructs. On the one hand, it is similar to
automatic imitation as the imitation effect is defined as the
difference in performance between congruent and incongruent
movements. On the other hand, it is similar to mimicry
as the underlying process takes place on an unconscious
level in the sense that participants are not aware of their
Top-down modulations in mimicry and automatic imitation
Despite different experimental approaches on automatic
imitation and mimicry, all of the above-reviewed literature
strongly indicates a direct link between action observation
and action execution. However, recent findings suggest that
this link may critically depend on social contexts
Chartrand, 2003; Lakin et al., 2008; Leighton et al. 2010b;
Wang & Hamilton 2012; Wang & Hamilton 2015)
example, stronger automatic imitation effects have been found for
human, compared with non-human actions
(Liepelt & Brass,
2010; Liepelt, Cramon, & Brass, 2008)
. for individuals with
low narcissistic traits
(Hogeveen & Obhi, 2013; Obhi,
Hogeveen, Giacomin, & Jordan, 2013)
. or for situations in
which direct eye contact is present
(Wang, Newport, &
Hamilton, A. F. d. C 2011a; Wang, Ramsey, & Hamilton
—to name just a few examples. In line with these
findings, social psychological research on mimicry found that
ingroup members are more strongly mimicked than out-group
(Bourgeois & Hess, 2008; Cheng & Chartrand,
2003; Lakin et al., 2008; Mondillon, Niedenthal, Gil, &
Droit-Volet, 2007; Yabar, Johnston, Miles, & Peace, 2006)
For instance, Cheng and Chartrand (2003, Experiment 1)
found that, compared with low self-monitoring individuals,
high self-monitors mimicked a confederate’s gestures more
when they believed the confederate to be a peer. Relatedly,
Lakin, Chartrand, and Arkin (2008; Experiment 2) showed
that participants who are excluded by their in-group, and thus
were motivated to affiliate with the in-group, mimicked a
confederate who was an in-group member more than a
confederate who was an out-group member.
An open question is whether such group modulations are
also present for more extreme forms of direct mapping, such
as in cross-contextual imitation settings, in which individuals
imitate others’ movements without sharing a common goal or
context. In the past decade, different theoretical models on
top-down modulations in imitation and mimicry have been
developed that may suggest different answers to this question.
On the one hand, recent models on self-other control suggest a
direct link between social sensory processing and imitation
(Sowden & Shah, 2014; Teufel et al., 2010)
. Such models
argue that the shared representation of own and others’
actions, which is crucial for imitation to occur
Keysers, 2009; Keysers & Gazzola, 2010)
. is based on
perceived similarities between oneself and the other person. If
others are perceived to be similar to oneself, others’ physical
characteristics are included into the shared representation,
whereas physical characteristics of dissimilar others are not
included into the representation. Neurophysiological research
(Brass, Derrfuss, & Von Cramon, 2005; Brass, Ruby, &
Spengler, 2009; Spengler, von Cramon, & Brass, 2009a, b)
has shown that this process may be located within the
temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and the medial prefrontal
cortex (mPFC). Both areas are involved in processing Theory
of Mind and empathy, which are known to facilitate
(Decety & Lamm, 2007; Decety &
Sommerville, 2003; Sperduti, Guionnet, Fossati, &
Nadel, 2014; Van Overwalle, 2009)
. In terms of
crosscontextual imitation, self-other control models would
assume that in-group members should be more strongly
imitated than out-group members if in-group members are
perceived as more similar to oneself than out-group
members. In other words, similarity between oneself and the
target person should be the mediator between
groupmembership and imitation. Thus, self-other control
models would predict that the perceived similarity
between oneself and the target person is more crucial for
imitation than the group of the target person itself.
On the other hand, other models explain top-down
modulations in imitation and mimicry by motivational processes
(Chartrand & Dalton, 2009; Wang & Hamilton 2012)
is, based on findings that mimicking others goes in line with
positive social consequences, such as that individuals are
liked more strongly (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). feel closer
(van Baaren et al., 2004)
. or receive more help
(van Baaren, Holland, Steenaert, & Van
. it is suggested that imitation is a
Bstrategic intervention to change the social world for
(Wang & Hamilton 2012, p.2)
. It is argued
that such a process is most likely implemented by the medial
(mPFC; Wang & Hamilton 2012)
. In line
with the assumption of such motivational models, research
has shown that the stronger an individuals’ motivation is to
affiliate with others, the more they mimic others
et al., 2008; Losin et al., 2014)
. As mentioned, when being
excluded from the in-group, individuals tend to more
strongly imitate this group than when they have been included in
the group (Lakin et al., 2008; Experiment 2). In terms of
cross-contextual imitation, motivational accounts would
expect that, compared with the out-group, the in-group should
be more strongly imitated the stronger individuals’
motivation is to affiliate with the in-group. In other words,
motivational accounts would define individuals’ motivation to
affiliate with the in-group as the moderator of the effect of
group-membership on imitation.
In the current study we tested the influence of
groupmembership on cross-contextual imitation. More specifically,
we tested two process assumptions against each other—that is,
self-other control models versus motivational accounts
underlying cross-contextual imitation. On the one hand, self-other
control models would predict increased cross-contextual
imitation of in-group members compared with out-group
members, if in-group members are perceived as more similar to
oneself than out-group members. Furthermore, perceived
similarity between oneself and the target person should be the
mediator of this effect. That is, the perceived similarity
between oneself and the target person is the crucial factor for
increased imitation, rather than the group itself. On the other
hand, motivational accounts would expect participants’
motivation to affiliate with the in-group acting as moderator of
group influences on cross-contextual imitation. That is, the
effect of group-membership on imitation should increase with
increased individuals’ motivation to affiliate with the
ingroup. To test these two models against each other, we
conducted a cross-contextual imitation experiment, in which we
introduced the model either as an in-group member or as an
out-group member. Additionally, to test the underlying process
assumptions of the two different models against each other, we
assessed participants’ perceived similarity with the model as
well as participants’ motivation to affiliate with the in-group.
Participants and design
A total of 160 students (137 females) from the University of
Mannheim (Germany) participated for course credit in the
experiment. The age ranged from 18 to 44 years (M = 20.84,
SD = 3.20). We applied a 2 (movement: compatible vs.
incompatible) x 2 (group: in-group vs. out-group)
betweensubjects design. In addition, we assessed participants’
perceived similarity with the model (potential mediator) as well
as participants’ motivation to affiliate with the in-group
(potential moderator) as additional continuous factors to test the
different process assumptions derived from self-other control
models and motivational models.
The experiment was conducted within a series of other
experiments. Statistical analyses indicated that the manipulations of
the previous studies did not have any influences on the actual
experiment. The procedure of the experiment was in line with
the Genschow et al. (2013, 2014) studies. As a cover story, the
experimenter told participants that they would have to taste a
new sports drink that was designed for consumption during
workouts. Furthermore, it was stated that in order to simulate
the context of working out, a video of an athlete exercising
with a barbell would be presented two times. To ensure that
every participant had an equal level of thirst, participants first
drank from a 300-ml plastic cup of water until they were not
thirsty anymore. Afterwards, participants indicated basic
demographic characteristics and then watched a video of an
athlete exercising with a barbell two times. For the first video
(24 s), the participants were instructed to just watch the video.
For the second video (80 s), the experimenter offered
participants ten plastic cups, each with a capacity of 20 ml, of an
icetea-flavored drink. To make sure that each cup contained the
same amount of the beverage, the experimenter dispensed
exactly 7 ml of the drink into each cup with a pipette. The
experimenter told participants that they were allowed to taste
from as many cups as they wanted until the video finished.
The videos were taken from the first-person perspective. In the
compatible movement condition, the athlete was standing
upright lifting a barbell from his waist to his chest. In the
incompatible movement condition, the same athlete was laying on
his back pushing the barbell up from his chest. In both videos,
the athlete moved the barbell 16 times with the same rhythm.
To manipulate group membership of the athlete, he was
introduced with a picture and a short CV before participants
watched the videos. In the in-group condition, the athlete was
introduced as a German student from the local university. In
the out-group condition, the athlete was introduced as a
Turkish man working in a fitness center.
After watching the video, participants evaluated the drink
on four items as part of the coverstory (BI like this sports
drink^; BThe sports drink appeals to me^; BI would
recommend this sports drink to a friend^; BI would like to buy this
sports drink^) on 7-point scales (1 = not at all, 7 = very much).
Crombach's Alpha for the composite score was α = 0.95.
To assess participants’ perceived similarity with the athlete,
we adapted the in-group bias measure of Castano, Yzerbyt,
Paladino, and Sacchi (2002). participants indicated on 7-point
scales (1 = not at all, 7 = very much) to what degree six
personal characteristics (Bsporty,^ Binterested,^ Bbalanced,^
Blikeable,^ Bmotivated,^ Bopen^) apply to themselves
similarly as to the athlete. To prepare data for analysis we computed a
composite score of these items (Cronbach's α = 0.73).
To measure participants’ motivation to affiliate with the
ingroup—that is, the local university—we adapted the six-item
identification scale from
Castano and colleagues (2002
our purposes. Participants answered the following six
questions on 7-point scales (1 = not at all, 7 = very much): BTo
which degree do you feel like a student of this university?^;
BHow strongly do you identify yourself with this university?^;
BHow strongly does this university shape your daily life?^;
BHow strongly do you feel associated with this university?^;
BWould you buy a souvenir (e.g., a t-shirt) of this university?^;
BWould you indicate on a social media platform (e.g.,
Facebook) that you are studying at this university?^ To
prepare data for analyzes, we computed a composite score of this
scale (Cronbach's α = 0.81).
At the end of the experiment, participants were probed for
suspicion, debriefed, and dismissed. To measure the
consumed portion of the drink, we counted how many cups the
participants had drunk.
None of the participants correctly guessed the purpose of the
experiment. To test the two theoretical models against each
other, we first analyzed the hypothesis derived from the
selfother control models
(Sowden & Shah, 2014; Teufel et al.,
and then the predictions derived from the motivational
(Chartrand & Dalton, 2009; Wang & Hamilton
Self-other control model hypothesis
Self-other control models on imitation
(Sowden & Shah,
2014; Teufel et al., 2010)
would assume that the perceived
similarity mediates the effect of group-membership on
imitation. That is, cross-contextual imitation should be larger
for in-group members than for out-group members, because
in-group members are perceived as more similar to oneself
than out-group members. To test this hypothesis, we applied
three analyses. First, we tested whether participants feel more
similar to the athlete when he is introduced as an in-group
member than when he is introduced as an out-group member.
To test this assumption, we conducted a t-test for independent
samples with the manipulated group-membership as
independent variable and participants’ perceived similarity with the
athlete as dependent measure. Confirming the hypothesis, the
result indicates that participants felt more similar to the athlete
when he was introduced as an in-group member (M = 5.31, SD
= 0.64) than when he was introduced as an out-group member
(M = 4.95, SD = 0.72), t(158) = 3.25, p = 0.001, d = 0.53.
Second, we tested in a regression analysis (R2 = 0.12) the
effect of group-membership on cross-contextual imitation. We
first z-standardized all continuous variables
(Aiken & West,
. As predictors, we entered the dummy-coded
movement (1 = incompatible movement, 0 = compatible
movement) and the dummy-coded group (1 = in-group, 0 =
outgroup) into the regression. The amount of used cups served as
dependent measure. The regression yielded a main effect for
movement indicating that participants used more cups while
watching the compatible movement (M = 3.13, SD = 1.21)1
compared with the incompatible movement (M = 2.49, SD =
1.14), β = −0.26, t(159) = −3.53, p = 0.001. Also, the main
effect for group was significant, indicating that participants
used more cups when they believed they were observing an
in-group member (M = 3.08, SD = 1.36) compared with an
out-group member (M = 2.54, SD = 0.98), β = 0.22, t(159) =
2.97, p = 0.003. However, in contrast to the prediction of
selfother control models, the crucial interaction between group
and movement did not reach significance, β = −0.01, t(159)
= −0.07, p = 0.945. This suggests that the group itself may not
influence cross-contextual imitation.
Third, we tested the effect of the assumed mediator of
group-membership on imitation—namely perceived
similarity between the athlete and the participants—with another
multiple regression analysis (R2 = 0.07). As predictors, we entered
the dummy-coded movement (1 = incompatible movement, 0
= compatible movement) and the perceived similarity with the
athlete into the regression. Again, the main effect for
movement was significant, β = −0.27, t(159) = −3.46, p = 0.001.
However, in contrast to the prediction of self-other control
models, the main effect of perceived similarity was not
significant, β = −0.04, t(159) = −0.45, p = 0.651. The interaction
term between similarity and movement was not a significant
predictor for imitation either, β = 0.08, t(159) = 0.74, p =
0.463. This suggests that perceived similarity between
1 To ease the interpretation we report here the amount of cups drunk
instead of the z-transformed values.
participants and the athlete may not have any effects on
Motivational account hypothesis
(Chartrand & Dalton, 2009; Wang &
would assume participants’ motivation to
affiliate with the in-group to be the moderator of group
influences on imitation. That is, the effect of group-membership on
imitation should be stronger the higher individuals’
motivation to affiliate with the in-group is. To test this assumption,
we ran a multiple regression analysis (R2 = 0.18). First, we
zstandardized all continuous variables (Aiken & West, 1996).
The amount of used cups served as the dependent measure. As
predictors we entered the dummy-coded movement (1 =
incompatible movement, 0 = compatible movement), the
dummy-coded group (1 = in-group, 0 = out-group),
participants’ motivation to affiliate with the in-group, and all
possible interactions between these variables. Figure 1 illustrates
the results. The regression yielded a main effect for movement
indicating that participants used more cups while watching the
compatible movement (M = 3.13, SD = 1.21), compared with
the incompatible movement (M = 2.49, SD = 1.14), β = −0.26,
t(159) = −3.49, p = 0.001. Also, the main effect for group was
significant, indicating that participants used more cups when
they believed they were observing an in-group member (M =
3.08, SD = 1.36), compared with an out-group member (M =
2.54, SD = 0.98), β = 0.22, t(159) = 2.87, p = 0.005. The main
effect of participants’ motivation to affiliate with the in-group,
as well as all two-way interactions did not reach significance,
β < 0.10, t(159) < 1.27, p > 0.219. However, more important
and in line with the hypothesis derived from motivational
accounts on imitation, the three-way interaction between
observed movement, group, and participants’ motivation to
affiliate with the in-group was significant, β = −0.34, t(159) =
−2.38, p = 0.018, indicating that the relationship between
group and movement depended on participants’ motivation
to affiliate with the in-group.
To investigate this three-way interaction in more detail, we
conducted additional regression analyses separately for the
inand the out-group. For participants who believed to observe an
in-group member, the regression again yielded a main effect
for video, indicating that participants who watched the
compatible movement (M = 3.40, SD = 1.28) used more cups than
participants who watched the incompatible movement (M =
2.75, SD = 1.28), β = −0.24, t(79) = −2.19, p = 0.031. The
main effect of affiliation motivation was not significant, β =
−0.11, t(79) = −1.04, p = 0.303. However, the interaction
between movement and affiliation motivation was marginally
significant, β = −0.27, t(79) = −1.78, p = 0.079. As can be
seen in Fig. 1, this indicates that participants tendentially
cross-contextually imitated the movement of the in-group
member more strongly the more they identified themselves
with the in-group. In addition, we ran simple slope analyses
(Aiken & West, 1996)
for the two movement conditions.
When participants watched the athlete executing the
incompatible arm movement, participants used less cups the higher
their affiliation motivation with the in-group was, β = −0.32,
t(79) = −2.02, p = 0.047. By contrast, when participants
watched the athlete executing the compatible arm movement,
affiliation motivation was not correlated with drink intake, β =
0.07, t(79) = 0.47, p = 0.641.
For participants who believed they were observing an
outgroup member, the regression again yielded a main effect for
video indicating that participants who watched the compatible
movement (M = 2.85, SD = 0.95) used more cups than
participants who watched the incompatible movement (M = 2.23,
SD = 0.92), β = −0.32, t(79) = −2.93, p = 0.004. The main
effect of participants’ motivation to affiliate with the in-group
was not significant, β = −0.06, t(79) = −0.58, p = 0.564.
Important for the hypothesis derived from motivational
accounts on imitation, however, was the significant interaction
between movement and affiliation motivation, β = 0.34, t(79)
= 2.60, p = 0.011. As shown in Fig. 1, this indicates that
participants cross-contextually imitated the movement of the
out-group member less strongly the higher their motivation to
affiliate with the in-group was. In addition, we ran simple
(Aiken & West, 1996)
for the two movement
conditions. When participants watched the athlete executing the
incompatible arm movement, participants used marginally
more of the cups the higher their affiliation motivation with
the in-group was, β = 0.29, t(79) = 1.70, p = 0.093.
Conversely, when participants watched the athlete executing the
compatible arm movement, affiliation motivation was negatively
correlated with the number of cups used, β = −0.27, t(79) =
−2.06, p = 0.043.
In additional multiple regression analyses, we tested whether
the manipulations had an effect on the drink evaluation. In
doing so, we ran all the above-reported analysis again with
the reported drink evaluation as dependent variable. As in
previous research on cross-contextual imitation
et al., 2013)
. neither a main effect nor any interaction
predicted the drink evaluation, β < 0.11, t(159) < 1.33, p > 0.18.
In the current study, we tested the influence of
groupmembership on cross-contextual imitation by comparing two
process assumptions against each other. Self-other control
(Sowden & Shah, 2014; Teufel et al., 2010)
have assumed that an in-group member is perceived as more
similar to oneself than an out-group member and that this
perceived s imilarity mediates the effect of
groupmembership on cross-contextual imitation. The results show
that an in-group member is, indeed, perceived as more similar
than an out-group member. However, we did not find any
support for the hypothesis that perceived similarity actually
mediates the effect of group-membership on cross-contextual
imitation for two reasons. First, group membership itself did
not have any effect on cross-contextual imitation. Second,
neither perceived similarity itself nor the interaction between
perceived similarity and group membership had an effect on
cross-contextual imitation. However, the data nicely fit
motivational accounts underlying top-down influences in imitation
(Chartrand & Dalton, 2009; Wang & Hamilton 2012)
Motivational accounts would have expected that participants’
motivation to affiliate with the in-group moderates the influence
of group-membership on imitation. In line with this
prediction, the results demonstrate that the effect of
groupmembership on cross-contextual imitation is stronger the
higher individuals’ motivation to affiliate with the in-group
is: When observing an in-group member, imitation of the
model’s movements increased with increasing motivation to
affiliate with the in-group. Conversely, when observing an
out-group member, imitation decreased with an increasing
This finding nicely fits social psychological research
showing that being excluded from the in-group leads individuals to
more strongly mimic their in-group
(Lakin, Chartrand, &
. It has been assumed that social exclusion
evokes a strong motivation to affiliate, thus, increasing
imitative responses. Further support for such an
affiliationmotivation process comes from studies on emotional facial
mimicry conducted by
Bourgeois and Hess (2008)
. In their
studies, the researchers found that happiness was mimicked
regardless of group-membership and anger was not mimicked
in out-group members. The researchers explain this finding
with the fact that happiness, but not anger, is generally
perceived as highly affiliative
(Hess, Blairy, & Kleck, 2000;
. Moreover, most recent research suggests that
in some cases even out-group members might elicit stronger
automatic imitation effects when participants are motivated to
affiliate with that group (i.e., when sharing implicit motivation
goals; Rauchbauer, Majdandžić, Hummer, Windischberger, &
Lamm, 2015). In sum, these and our present findings suggest
that affiliation motives are an important factor when it comes
to imitation and mimicry of different group members.
Although the finding that affiliation motives are a key
driver in cross-contextual imitation of groups, an intriguing
question is why group membership should have an influence on
cross-contextual imitation at all. Based on the fact that in
cross-contextual imitation settings individuals cannot expect
any positive social consequences, it might be rather surprising
that affiliation motives and group membership still have a
strong impact. A promising explanation for this finding is
offered by research conducted by Losin et al.
(2014; see also
Losin, Iacoboni, Martin, Cross, & Dapretto, 2012)
researchers conducted an fMRI study with European American
and African American participants. Participants consciously
imitated and passively observed gestures from other African
American, European American, as well as Chinese American
models. Within both African American and European
American subjects, more activity in the lateral frontoparietal and
visual regions was found when imitating African American
models compared to European American or Chinese
American models. Furthermore, it was found that African and
European American subjects associated African Americans with
lower social status than European or Chinese Americans. In
line with our research, these findings suggest that it is not the
perceived similarity between group and observer that
modulates imitation. Instead, by taking an evolutionary perspective,
Losin and colleagues speculate that neural responses towards
groups during imitation might be driven by socially learned
associations. That is, stronger imitation might reflect an
adaptive way of social learning, in which learning from higher
status models is more beneficial than learning from lower
status models. An open question is whether similar processes
are involved in cross-contextual imitation of in- and out-group
members. Future research may aim at further exploring
whether overlearned imitation of high status individuals
transfers to imitative settings, such as cross-contextual imitation, in
which no positive social consequences can be expected.
Despite the theoretical implications of our findings, there
might be some shortcomings regarding the results. A close
look at the interaction pattern suggests that the effects are
driven by the compatible as well as by the incompatible
movement condition. More specifically, simple slope tests suggest
that when observing the in-group member the interaction
between affiliation and observed movement is driven by the
compatible movement condition. In contrast, the same
interaction for observing the out-group member seems to be driven
by the incompatible as well as by the compatible movement
condition. It is important to note, however, that past research
on automatic imitation
(e.g., Brass et al., 2001; Brass et al.,
indicates that in some cases incompatible movements
can indeed drive imitation effects. This is the case because the
observation of any kind of movement activates corresponding
(Brass et al., 2001; Kilner, Paulignan, &
. Therefore, the observation of a compatible
drinking-movement facilitates drinking resulting in an
increased amount of drinking-movements whereas the
observation of an incompatible drinking-movement can inhibit its
execution resulting in a decreased amount of
drinking-movements. Crucial for a cross-contextual imitation effect, thus, is
not the effect of single slopes, but rather the difference
between compatible and incompatible movements, which is
the case in our study.
In sum, our findings suggest that despite any direct social
advantages, shared goals and contexts, group-membership has
still a strong impact on imitation. However, an important
precondition for such group-modulations to occur is the
motivation to affiliate with the in-group. This result supports
motivational models on top-down influences in imitation
& Dalton, 2009; Wang & Hamilton 2012)
and extends models
on self-other control
(Sowden & Shah, 2014; Teufel et al.,
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