Inhibiting imitation of others increases empathy


Training individuals to inhibit imitation of others increases empathy and allows them to recognize facial expressions in others regardless of their situations.

When friends and family approach us with good or bad news, we are able to empathize with them—put ourselves in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.

Some part of this ability to empathize is associated with the ability to imitate the expressions of people we try to empathize with and understand. Thus a question arises: how is empathy with and understanding others affected when this mimicry is prevented?

A recent study by Naoyoshi Matsuda and Masaki O. Abe at Hokkaido University explored the effects of imitation-inhibition training on the recognition of emotional states in others.

Their work, published in the journal Cognitive Studies: Bulletin of the Japanese Cognitive Science Society, shows that imitation-inhibition contributes to the ability to recognize others’ emotional states quickly and accurately.

“Imitation-inhibition training is a type of training that focuses on making people suppress automatic imitative tendencies. This training has been shown to enhance the ability to distinguish between oneself and others, as well as increase the ability to empathize. However, until our study, its effects on the speed and accuracy of the recognition of facial expressions in others had not been investigated,” said Abe, corresponding author of the study.

A group of nine women and forty-one men were split into two groups, one of which was given imitation-inhibition training. This consisted of placing their hand on a mouse and pressing down on both buttons; when presented with an image of the index finger raised, they had to lift the middle finger, and vice versa.

The group without imitation-inhibition training (control training, right) had to lift their index finger when presented with the number 1 and the middle finger when presented with 2.

The Facial Expression Recognition (FER) test was then used to evaluate their speed and accuracy in recognizing five different facial expressions: happiness, surprise, disgust, anger, and sadness. During this test, participants were made to hold chopsticks in their mouths, which inhibited imitation of the expressions (restricted block).

The performance of the restricted block was compared to that of an unrestricted block in which there was no constraint on the participants’ face.

“Interestingly, the group which did not have imitation-inhibition training was slower to identify the facial recognitions in the restricted block because of the interference of face mimicry. However, the group which had imitation-inhibition training did not have such a delay. It suggests that imitation-inhibition training allows for a similar level of recognition of others’ emotional states, regardless of discrepancies between the condition of self and others.”

The interpersonal reactivity index, a measure of empathy, increased in the group that underwent training, but remained unchanged in the one that did not—a clear indication that the training was responsible for the change.

Abe concluded, “We experimentally demonstrated that it is important to clearly distinguish between self and others’ situations—and to understand others’ situations independently of one’s own situation—in order to understand others and communicate with them.”

Future research will address the effect of imitation-inhibition training on the other social cognitions such as understanding the intentions of others, and will also investigate the effects not only on the behavioral level, but also on the neural level.

Individuals imitate a wide range of different behaviors including facial expressions [1], characteristics of language [2–5], emotions [1,6], postures [7], gestures [8], complex action patterns [9] or simple movements [10–14]—to name just a few examples. Research from the last decade suggests that imitative behavior may function as a “social glue” (e.g., [15,16]) in the sense that it strengthens human bonds by increasing pro-social behavior [17], feelings of affiliation [18], or liking for each other [6].

Within the domain of imitation, social psychologists are applying different paradigms than cognitive psychologists. With reference to the chameleon effect, social psychologists investigate mimicry—individuals’ tendency to imitate others in social settings. Mimicry has most often been investigated by applying naturalistic paradigms that measure the frequency of imitation in interactions between a participant and a confederate (e.g., [6,16,19–22]).

For example, Chartrand and Bargh [6] let participants engage in a card-sorting task with a confederate who repeatedly touched his face in one half of the experiment and repeatedly waggled his food in the other half of the experiment. Importantly, participants’ behavior was videotaped during the experiment so that the researchers could code how often participants engaged themselves in face touching and food waggling.

The typical result of such a paradigm is that participants more often touch their face than waggle their foot when the confederate touches his face and vice versa when the confederate waggles his foot. Besides such one-to-one interactions, researchers have also used adapted versions (e.g., [11–13,18,21,22,23,24–27]) in which participants observe a video of a model who engages in two classes of different behaviors (e.g., nose touching vs. hair touching). Similar to the aforementioned studies, participants are videotaped while they watch the videos. Afterwards, coders measure the degree of mimicry by coding how often participants performed the two target actions themselves.

In contrast to such naturalistic paradigms, researchers in cognitive psychology focus on automatic imitation, which can be seen as the laboratory model of imitation [28]. In a typical experiment, participants respond over many trials with two different movements to two different symbolic cues while seeing a congruent movement, an incongruent movement, or no movement on a computer screen.

For example, in the task developed by Brass, Bekkering, and Prinz [10], participants have to lift their index or middle finger in response to the number ‘1’ or ‘2’. At the same time, participants also see a hand performing either the same finger movement (i.e. congruent), the other finger movement (i.e. incongruent), or no finger movement (i.e. neutral).

Automatic imitation in this paradigm refers to the finding that individuals respond faster and with fewer errors to congruent trials than to incongruent trials (i.e., congruency effect). However, besides the congruency effect, researchers can also compute the facilitation effect—individuals’ tendency to respond faster and with fewer errors to congruent trials than to neutral trials. Finally, the experimental setup allows measuring individuals’ tendency to inhibit imitative responses (i.e., interference effect). That is, individuals respond slower and with more errors to incongruent trials than to neutral trials (e.g., [10,29]).

In the literature, the terms mimicry and automatic imitation are often used synonymously [28]. Thus, there seems to be wide agreement that mimicry and automatic imitation are correlated. But is this indeed the case?

The answer to this fundamental question may depend on whether one compares the methods or the theoretical assumptions of mimicry and automatic imitation. While a methodological analysis suggests that the two paradigms measure different constructs, a theoretical analysis instead points towards a common ground.

reference lin k:

Original Research: Closed access.
Imitation inhibition and facial expression recognition: Imitation-inhibition training inhibits the impact of interference with facial mimicry” by Naoyoshi Matsuda et al. Cognitive Studies: Bulletin of the Japanese Cognitive Science


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