“Mirroring” is when a person mimics the body language, verbal habits, or attitudes of someone else, typically unconsciously. Mirroring can relate to personality types because personality traits correlate to many aspects of expression that may be mimicked. For example, Extraverts are more likely than Introverts to seek eye contact when talking with someone. Mimicking someone’s Extraverted behavior is essentially mimicking their Extraverted personality.
Not all mirroring is personality mirroring, but that’s the kind of mimicry that I’m talking about here. Why might this matter to you? Well, personality mirroring isn’t always harmless – whether you’re the one mirroring or being mirrored – yet it may be beneficial. Increasing your awareness and understanding of personality mirroring can enhance your personal growth and social interactions.
It may not be fair (or accurate) to say that mirroring is good or bad on its face, since it’s a common human behavior. At its heart, though, personality mirroring is social manipulation, and whether that’s harmful, helpful, or ethical may depend on the context and motivations behind it. It may also be a matter of perspective.
What’s the goal? Who stands to gain? Is such manipulation more objectionable if it’s deliberate – or more acceptable if it serves a truly good purpose? It’s up to you to answer such questions for yourself, but there are some key things that you may want to consider. When it comes to personality mirroring, intent and effect can matter a lot, and fairness is a good thing.
So, let’s consider some examples of personality mirroring, possible pros and cons, and potentially helpful approaches to this behavior.
Be Like Them, Be Liked by Them
The desire to gain the acceptance and approval of others is natural and affects much of our behavior – whether we like to admit it or not. The rewards of “belonging” can be felt on both an emotional level and a practical level, and as such, exert a powerful influence on us. Ideally, we’d be liked and admired for our genuine personalities, but in reality, it’s natural that we often adapt ourselves to appeal to those around us. Mimicry to fit in is common, though not always conscious.
For example, an Introverted person might chat, talk, and laugh more than they naturally would in order to fit in among socially active, outgoing people. Likewise, a Thinking personality might unconsciously adopt some of the warm gestures and expressions of a Feeling personality to connect with them better. A Judging individual might even let some of their strict organizational procedures slide to better integrate among coworkers in a relaxed, casual workplace.
Personality mirroring may happen because it tends to work – people are generally more positively inclined toward those they perceive to be like them. And in a group dynamic, an individual’s mirroring of personality traits common to that group can make inclusion more likely. So is personality mirroring good for you? Should you avoid doing it, embrace it, or be suspicious when you see it in others?
That might depend on the cost. Some degree of unconscious personality mirroring is almost inevitable and no cause for concern. But if attempts to mimic others are labored, extreme, or have a negative effect, it’s possible that some change is in order. Suppressing our own traits to mimic others’ too much or too often may be unhealthy. It requires constant effort, and that can become exhausting.
It’s wise to recognize when we’re doing that and to adjust our approach to be less costly. We may not often be aware of when we’re mirroring others’ personalities, and that’s okay (and natural), yet when we’re trying so hard to fit in that it’s burning us out, we can feel the stress. It can be an indicator that we need to dial things down or perhaps try other social approaches that leverage our true personalities more than imitating others. It may require some bravery to express who we are in a positive way, but the rewards can be worth it.
When Personality Mirroring Goes Wrong
Not all mimicry produces a positive response – it can backfire. When it becomes known that mimicry is afoot, some people’s responses may be dislike – the exact opposite of what personality mirroring hopes to accomplish. For many, realizing that something isn’t what it appears to be triggers a threat response, and we often distrust that which seems deceptive or unnatural to us.
A common way that this occurs during personality mirroring is when the effort becomes so strained that the mimicry becomes apparent and the mimicker accordingly comes off as insincere. Instead of inspiring feelings of familiarity, comfort, and favor, the mirroring behavior can seem manipulative and artificial. Even if it stems from an innocent desire to simply be liked, it may make people feel repelled, or at the very least uneasy.
Similar negative responses can occur when an observer’s perception suggests any kind of disparity between the mimicked behavior and the mimicker. Something can feel odd or “off,” and that’s unsettling, even if they can’t explain why. This can happen when mimicry seems to cross lines between social groups, be they based on status, appearance, or something else. If people sense that someone from outside a group (however it’s defined) is mimicking that group, it may seem dissonant and produce that negative response mentioned above.
For example, a Logistician (ISTJ) who usually operates with decisive pragmatism might mimic a dreamy, speculative mindset to spark conversations with a Campaigner (ENFP). The mimicry might work well, or it might seem unnatural and result in a raised eyebrow more than simpatico vibes. Likewise, if that Campaigner were to affect dispassionate, grounded logic to connect with the Logistician, it may work, or it might trigger alarms. Failed personality mirroring doesn’t always provoke harsh rejection – it may merely cause the mimicker to be perceived as a “poser,” reinforcing their “other” status rather than helping them be accepted as a peer.
The solution to such situations may be what I mentioned at the end of the previous section – when mimicry falls flat, expressing your native personality traits in positive ways can help you earn respect and form good relationships. Even if your virtues and values are somewhat different from those of whomever you wish to connect with, authenticity has its own appeal.
Mimicry for Transactional Gain
Most personality mirroring is unconscious, based on perfectly natural human needs and desires. But as mimicry is a form of social manipulation, conscious personality mirroring may raise some moral questions. Deliberately mimicking people in order to build trust and rapport is a gray area that could border on dishonesty, even when driven by understandable motivations like social competitiveness and resource acquisition. Not all natural behaviors are pleasant or ethical.
One might draw a line between those who seek favor simply for the sake of having a positive connection, and those who are using that connection as a means to another end entirely. For example, say that a normally brash Commander (ENTJ) imitates the quiet, introspective manner of some Mediators (INFPs) in order to join their book club. If the goal is to share in a love of literature, there may be no problem, but if it’s to try to sign them up for gym memberships, the Mediators might have something to say.
However, defining personality mirroring for transactional gain or a hidden purpose as immoral or unethical may be going overboard. After all, some transactions are mutually beneficial, and some hidden purposes may be helpful. (I think that this is where awareness of personality mirroring is crucial, both to protect your own values and yourself from those without any.) There’s nothing wrong with consciously building rapport and trust, including through personality mirroring, but it’s very wise to pay attention to who gains what – and any potential hidden purposes.
A doctor might use personality mirroring to build that trust and rapport for the sake of putting their patients at ease and making medical care less stressful. Is the doctor being manipulative? Technically. Are they benefiting financially? Likely so. Are they seeking a personal connection? Probably not. However, their primary motivation is the emotional and physical well-being of the person they’re mirroring. In contrast, a salesperson may not have such lofty motivations nor offer end results as beneficial to the mimicked person.
Mirroring is an oft-recommended sales tool. Making people like and trust you can be a powerful thing, enabling you to guide their actions, choices, or beliefs, but what you do with that power depends on the kind of person that you are. Mimicry is often a passive or defensive behavior – but it’s also a tool used by some predators. Ultimately, the ethical borderline might depend on how someone would feel if they realized that they were being mirrored – and why. Would they see it as acceptable? When judging personality mirroring – especially if we sense that it’s being done to us – we might ask ourselves how fair the underlying motivation is.
Personality Mirroring to Connect, Understand, and Grow
Let’s close things out by considering the loftier potentials of personality mirroring. One obvious benefit is how it can help you connect with other people – not merely “fitting in” by making others see you as similar to them but helping to create a deeper connection that makes room for authentic differences. To my mind, there’s nothing about mimicry that cries “Genuineness! Depth! Mutuality!” – but it may help spark a relationship that includes those things.
There are many paths to forming healthy social relationships, and if personality mirroring (whether conscious or not) can help, I see that as a positive thing. It’s likely that friendships will include some mirroring anyway, as people spend time together and are exposed to each other’s behaviors. Such mirroring could even be an affirmation of value – we often wish to be more like those we value. People who have a good relationship may “rub off” on each other.
When people have very different personality traits, their connection may even have a balancing effect. Personality trait extremes are more likely to bring challenges – for example, if someone struggles socially because they’re extremely Introverted or has a hard time completing important tasks due to powerful Prospecting inclinations. A friend with the opposite trait behaviors could be a beneficial influence, and mimicking them could help moderate those extremes.
If you surround yourself with people who inspire your personal growth, mimicking them hardly seems like a bad thing. And friends who give each other feelings of acceptance, belonging, and just plain fun may mirror one another as part of affirming their bond. Again, that hardly seems like a bad thing, and hopefully those mimicked will see it in a positive light – if they’re even aware of it, as it’s likely to be subconscious.
But can it be conscious and still be so positive? Perhaps, if it’s done in the spirit of creating a healthy, honest bond. Sometimes, mirroring someone else can help you understand what makes them tick, not entirely unlike method acting, but with the goal of building empathy and understanding between two real people, rather than portraying a character. To walk in someone else’s shoes can be a powerful way to get to know them, and personality mirroring could help make that possible. (It could at least be like trying on their sunglasses or hat.)
Some of what we’ve considered here today is speculative. But if I could convince you of anything, it would be that when it comes to personality mirroring, awareness and fairness are key. Personality mirroring is a mixed bag, so I think it’s wise to practice detecting it and evaluating the reasons behind it. That said, social mimicry is so common that it may not pay to respond negatively when you spot it. And since it can support healthy social connections, some degree of optimism and acceptance is a reasonable and healthy reaction.
Much personality mirroring likely stems from a desire for social acceptance, something that we can all relate to. As such, you might opt to see it and the person behind it with a kind eye – especially if that person is you. The desire to connect can be a very authentic, positive thing, even if we occasionally go about it through somewhat artificial or deliberate means. When judging personality mirroring, consider the context and intent. And watch out when you’re buying a car or getting investment advice.