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INSEAD Assistant Professor William W. Maddux, left, with Kellogg Associate Professor Adam Galinsky. The two, along with Stanford Assistant Professor Elizabeth Mullen, co-authored an award-winning paper on mimicry and negotiation when all three were on faculty at Kellogg.

Imitation is best form of flattery — and a good negotiation strategy

Research on mimicry co-authored by Kellogg professor wins Academy of Management award; study uncovers how tactic can create trust

By Adrienne Murrill

8/16/2007 - Bet you didn’t know chameleons can bake a mean pie.

That’s what the research of Kellogg School Associate Professor Adam Galinsky and co-authors William W. Maddux of INSEAD and Elizabeth Mullen of Stanford suggests. Only these scholars mean “chameleon” in the figurative sense — as in, people who slyly imitate others.

The study, titled, “Chameleons Bake Bigger Pies and Take Bigger Pieces: Strategic Behavioral Mimicry Facilitates Negotiation Outcomes,” examined the role that mimicry plays in negotiations. Galinsky and his colleagues learned that, when negotiating outcomes, people obtain more value from the deals if they mimic their opponents. Maddux explained that this is because mimicry “increases the trust that the opponents have for each other.” If they trust each other more, presumably they are sharing more information and ultimately figuring out the best deal for both parties.

Presented among several thousand other papers at this year’s annual Academy of Management meeting, held Aug. 5-8 in Philadelphia, the research, which was conducted when all three co-authors were on faculty at Kellogg, won an award for Best Paper – New Direction, “a paper that makes a significant new contribution to conflict literature through innovation, involving but not limited to the innovative use of new methods or a new approach/venue for the study of conflict and negotiation in organizations and broader society.” The paper will be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The authors said mimicry is a natural behavior in which human beings engage. “Many people believe that the human brain evolved the way that it did to accommodate the fact that humans are intensely social beings,” said Galinsky, who is part of the Kellogg School’s Management and Organizations Department and whose expertise includes intergroup relations, conflict resolution and negotiation. “As the size of groups increased, it required more sophisticated understandings and interactions with people.” A consequence of that, he said, is people look for cues in the environment to signal when social bonds are possible or not. “One of those cues is this unconscious awareness of whether we are in sync with other people, and a way to do that is to match their behavioral patterns with our own.”

Maddux said examples of this automatic behavior occur by the natural tendency to mimic accents, facial expressions or gestures — such as when spouses come to have similar characteristics, or when a pet and its owner resemble each other in posture or expression.

Although other research has demonstrated that people are likely to mimic others when they have social bonds, and that certain types of people are more likely to mimic, this study is unique because it is the first to demonstrate the process mimicry produces in negotiations. “Negotiations are a much more complex task than has ever been studied with these types of behaviors because there is a mixed motive,” Maddux said, which includes incentives to cooperate and to compete.

“It’s one thing to say mimicry produces better outcomes but we’re able to say why,” Maddux said. “We found that the people being mimicked trusted the person doing the mimicking more than in groups where mimicking was not occurring.”

Galinsky explained that there is a classic dilemma in negotiations between cooperation and competition. “In a complex negotiation with multiple issues, there’s an awareness that we could together grow the size of the pie,” he said. “But at the same time, not only do we want to grow the pie, but we want to take the biggest slice possible. We found that mimicry allows people to bake bigger pies because it gets people to share information, and then they understand tradeoffs.”

By offering tradeoffs that are strategically advantageous to oneself, it is possible to ‘bake a bigger pie’ while taking a greater proportion of the pie for oneself. And that is how the paper earned its name.

This research is important for any industry founded upon trust and or negotiations, Galinsky and Maddux agreed. Real estate agents, mediators and waiters can all put this research to profitable use. However, they warn, the only downside is if the other person recognizes that they are being mimicked, it can backfire.

“It’s got to be subtle, but in the real world it often is because we just naturally do this to feel connected to someone,” Galinsky said, “even if it’s a stranger you just met.”