Social scientists have long been intrigued by the human tendency to mimic the behavior of others. Research has shown that people automatically mimic other people’s posture, mannerisms and facial expressions as they interact. But does mimicry translate to product preferences as well? These researchers say yes.

Consumers were invited to participate in a study about ad memory. As a part of their orientation, they were shown a videotape of a “previous participant” engaged in the study. In the videotape, the “participant” (actually one of the researchers) had two bowls of snacks in front of him—animal crackers and goldfish crackers. The participants witnessed the subject snacking exclusively on either one or the other bowl of crackers.

Sure enough, participants in the goldfish cracker-only condition selected goldfish more often than they did animal crackers, when they were offered the two snacks, while participants in the animal cracker-only condition selected animal crackers.

The researchers conducted other experiments to further hone in on the effects of mimicry on preferences, and concluded that mimicry can indeed influence product consumption and appraisal. “As a result of mimicry, we consistently observed increased product preferences across a variety of … measures,” they concluded.

Words to market by: The next time you set up a product display, invite some of your best customers to stop by. Their appreciation might initiate a mimicry effect!

Imitation pays. Encourage your customers to buy based on others’ choices. You might try highlighting “best sellers,” or showcasing customer preferences.

Source: “Of Chameleons and Consumption: The Impact of Mimicry on Choice and Preferences,” by Robin J. Tanner, Rosellina Ferraro, Tanya L. Chartrand, James R. Bettman and Rick Van Baaren. Journal of Consumer Research