Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Topics: Word, Blood type, Compatibility Pages: 17 (4459 words) Published: March 24, 2013
Title: Actions speak louder than words: comparing automatic imitation and verbal command

Authors: Helge Gillmeister, Arnaud Badets and Cecilia Heyes University College London, London, UK

Corresponding author: Helge Gillmeister Department of Psychology, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP, United Kingdom Tel.: +44 207 679 5379 E-mail:

Running head: Actions speak louder than words

Word count: 3904

Actions speak louder than words


Automatic imitation – copying observed actions without intention – is known to occur, not only in neurological patients and those with developmental disorders, but also in healthy, typically-developing adults and children. Previous research has shown that a variety of actions are automatically imitated, and that automatic imitation promotes social affiliation and rapport. We assessed the power of automatic imitation by comparing it with the strength of the tendency to obey verbal commands. In a Stroop interference paradigm, the stimuli were compatible, incompatible and neutral compounds of hand postures and verbal commands. When imitative responses were required, the impact of irrelevant action images on responding to words was greater than the effect of irrelevant words on responding to actions. Control group performance showed that this asymmetry was not due to modality effects or differential salience of action and word stimuli. These results indicate that automatic imitation was more powerful than verbal command.


Actions speak louder than words


Even when we do not intend to imitate others, we are inclined to copy their body movements. This tendency, known as ‘mimicry’ or ‘automatic imitation’, was once thought to be confined to patients with frontal brain damage (Lhermitte, Pillon, & Serdaru, 1986), atypically-developing individuals (e.g. Charman & Baron-Cohen, 1994), ‘savages’ (Darwin, 1989) and nonhuman animals (Thorndike, 1898). More recent research has shown that automatic imitation is also common in healthy, typically-developing adults (e.g. Wallbott, 1991; Lakin & Chartrand, 2003; Brass, Bekkering, Wohlschläger, & Prinz, 2000) and children (Simpson & Riggs, 2007). The purpose of the present study was to estimate the strength of our tendency automatically to imitate the behavior of others by comparing it with the strength of our tendency to do what we are told; to perform actions on verbal command.

Most previous research on automatic imitation has been concerned, not with the strength of this tendency, but with its pervasiveness and effects on social attitudes. Carefully controlled laboratory studies have found automatic imitation of facial expressions (e.g. Wallbott, 1991), as well as finger (e.g. Brass et al., 2000), hand (Heyes, Bird, Johnson, & Haggard, 2005) and arm movements (e.g. Kilner, Paulignan, & Blakemore, 2003). Studies investigating the ‘chameleon


Actions speak louder than words

effect’ in semi-naturalistic social situations have shown that gestures such as eartouching and foot-wagging are automatically imitated, that this kind of mimicry can occur without the imitator’s conscious awareness, and that it promotes affiliation and rapport between social partners (e.g. Lakin & Chartrand, 2003).

Indirect evidence of the pervasiveness of automatic imitation has been provided by functional imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). For example, imaging has shown that the observation of hand, foot and mouth movements activates the same areas of premotor cortex active during their execution (Buccino et al., 2001). Revealing yet further specificity, the observation of hand and arm movements selectively increases TMS-induced motor evoked potentials from the particular muscles involved in executing these movement (e.g. Strafella & Paus, 2000).

In behavioral studies, stimulus-response compatibility (SRC) procedures are often used to detect automatic...
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