Applying Psychology to MMORPGs: Automatic Mimicry

Research in social and organizational psychology has consistently shown for many years that when people or groups interact, many of their verbal and non-verbal cues become synchronized almost immediately. For example, the timing of gestures becomes synchronized (Kendon, 1970), and group members mirror each other's posture and mannerisms (LaFrance, 1982; LaFrance & Broadbent, 1976). Individuals in a conversation will also mirror each other's accents and speech patterns (Cappella & Panalp, 1981), and syntax (Levelt & Kelter, 1982). In fact, many human behaviors seem to be contagious, such as yawning (Provine, 1986), laughter (Provine, 1992), and even moods (Neumann & Strack, 2000). Researchers have suggested that this synchronization is an automatic human behavior that functions as a regulator of trust and rapport in social interactions (Kendon, 1970; LaFrance, 1982).

Recent research has demonstrated more precisely that when people interact, they in fact unconsciously mimic each other's behavior. In one study (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999), subjects interacted with a confederate (a research assistant who pretends to be another subject) in a collaborative task. The confederate performed a series of movements (foot shaking and touching their face) and it was found that subjects would unintentionally match those behaviors themselves. More importantly, in a different part of that study, confederates were asked to either mimic or not mimic the subject's behaviors and it was found that subjects judged confederate mimickers as more likeable than confederate non-mimickers.

Instead of merely influencing attitudes, automatic mimicry has also been shown to influence observable behaviors as well. For example, waiters who verbally mimic their customers' orders (by repeating the order) receive bigger tips than when they say something else instead (like ‘Coming right up') (van Baaren, Holland, Steenaert, & van Knippenberg, 2003). In fact, when a person is mimicked, they become more generous not only towards the mimicker, but to everyone else in general (van Baaren, Holland, Kawakami, & van Knippenberg, 2004). Mimicry increases an individual's prosocial behavior. This process also happens the other way. Affiliation goals increase the frequency of automatic mimicry in interactions (Lakin & Chartrand, 2003).


This has led researchers to hypothesize that automatic mimicry is an evolutionary adaptation to facilitate and express social affiliation and that the process is bi-directional - mimicry facilitates affiliation and prosocial behavior and affiliation goals increase mimicry (Lakin, Jefferis, Cheng, & Chartrand, 2003). This theory is also supported by studies that have shown that very young infants will mimic many facial expressions they perceive, such as sticking their tongue out, smiling and opening their mouths (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977).

Virtual environments in fact provide a perfect setting for embedding subtle mimicry behaviors in NPCs because details in the environment can be rendered differently for each user. The goal of embedding mimicry would be to increase prosocial behavior in general in the community. After all, loyalty and bonds with other players is what keeps players in a community.

Examples of this embedding range from the simple to the complex. Of course, the following are not meant to be employed with every single NPC interaction, but instead used intermittently to seed prosocial behavior.

- Align the NPCs appearance with the character's appearance. Match their hair color, their clothing style, or the weapon they are carrying.

- Match the first letter of the NPCs first name with the first letter of the character's first name.

- Store the user's style of greeting other users by matching with a small database of known greeting words, such as ‘hi', ‘hey', ‘what's up', and so on, and have the NPC greet the user with the appropriate words.

- Store the verbosity of users' exchanges with other users. Laconic users prefer laconic NPCs and verbose users prefer verbose NPCs - it functions as an approximation for personality differences.

The often-assumed freedom that comes with virtual worlds is a double-edged sword. In the real world, laws constrain behavior, but in virtual worlds, code dictates behavior. If shouting is not allowed in virtual worlds, then you cannot shout in public spaces. You can communicate with other users only through tools provided by the virtual world. In a strange way, relationships in virtual worlds are not created as much as engineered by the mechanics of the world. As these environments evolve, they might - for better or worse - become tools of social engineering that were never imagined even possible in the real world.



Cappella, J., & Panalp, A. (1981). Talk and Silence Sequences in Informal Conversations. Interspeaker Influence. Human Communication Research, 7, 117-132.

Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 76(6), 893-910.

Kendon, A. (1970). Movement Coordination in social interactions. Acta Psychologica, 32(2), 101-125.

LaFrance, M. (1982). Posture Mirroring and Rapport. In M. Davis (Ed.), Interaction Rhythms: Periodicity in Communicative Behavior (pp. 279-298).

LaFrance, M., & Broadbent, M. (1976). Group Rapport: Posture Sharing as a Nonverbal Indicator. Group and Organizational Studies, 1, 328-333.

Lakin, J. L., & Chartrand, T. L. (2003). Using nonconscious behavioral mimicry to create affiliation and rapport. Psychological Science, 14(4), 334-339.

Lakin, J. L., Jefferis, V. E., Cheng, C. M., & Chartrand, T. L. (2003). The chameleon effect as social glue: Evidence for the evolutionary significance of nonconscious mimicry. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 27(3), 145-162.

Levelt, W., & Kelter, S. (1982). Surface form and memory in question answering. Cognitive Psychology, 14(78-106).

Meltzoff, A., & Moore, A. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science, 198(75-78).

Neumann, R., & Strack, F. (2000). Mood Contagion: The automatic transfer of mood between persons. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 79, 211-223.

Provine, R. (1986). Yawning as a stereotyped action pattern and releasing stimulus. Ethology, 72, 109-122.

Provine, R. (1992). Contagious Laughter: Laughter is sufficient stimulus for laughs and smiles. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30(1-4).

van Baaren, R. B., Holland, R. W., Kawakami, K., & van Knippenberg, A. (2004). Mimicry and Prosocial Behavior. Psychological Science, 15(1), 71-74.

van Baaren, R. B., Holland, R. W., Steenaert, B., & van Knippenberg, A. (2003). Mimicry for money: Behavioral consequences of imitation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39(4), 393-398.