Similarity and automatic imitation

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Description: Individuals automatically imitate a wide range of different behaviors. Previous research suggests that imitation as a social process depends on the similarity between interaction partners. However, some of the experiments supporting this notion could not be replicated and all of the supporting experiments manipulated not only similarity between actor and observer, but also other features. Thus, the existing evidence leaves open whether similarity as such moderates automatic imitation. To directly test the similarity account, in four experiments, we manipulated participants’ focus on similarities or differences while holding the stimulus material constant. In Experiment 1, we presented participants with a hand and let them either focus on similarities, differences, or neutral aspects between their own hand and the other person’s hand. The results indicate that focusing on similarities increased perceived similarity between the own and the other person’s hand. In Experiments 2 to 4, we tested the hypothesis that focusing on similarities, as compared with differences, increases automatic imitation. Experiment 2 tested the basic effect and found support for our prediction. Experiment 3 and 4 replicated this finding with higher-powered samples. Exploratory investigations further suggest that it is a focus on differences that decreases automatic imitation, and not a focus on similarities that increases automatic imitation. Theoretical implications and future directions are discussed.

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