Speech imitation can happen silently

16:00, Feb 06 2013

It is not necessary to hear a person speak to imitate the way they sound, Christchurch researchers have found.

University of Canterbury's Kauyumari Sanchez and summer scholarship student Nicole Mehrtens have been researching a phenomenon known as the chameleon effect, in which people subtly shift their body language and speech pattern to imitate others.

It is thought people do this to be more accepted in groups.

"You may have noticed that while having dinner with someone you tend to drink at the same time and mirror the other person's body movements, such as tapping your foot," Sanchez said.

Sanchez has found that people will imitate another person's speech even if they do not hear the other person talking.

The university tested people in two groups during the summer holidays.


One group was shown a video of the subject talking, but could not hear what they were saying.

The other group heard what the subject said but did not see them.

Both groups shifted to talk in the same way as the subject "just by virtue of influence", Sanchez said.

The group that did not hear the subject mirrored subtle ways in which they moved their mouth and formed words.

"We wanted to see if people would be equally influenced in how they articulate their words when presented with auditory versus visual speech..." Sanchez said.

"If it is the case that people automatically imitate the face or voice of a talker, then it would suggest that auditory and visual speech might carry the same information."

People could also reconstruct from memory a person's way of talking, even if they had never heard them speak certain words or phrases.

Long after watching Star Wars, people still mimicked actor James Earl Jones' raspy dialect when they saw a picture of his character, Darth Vader.

The Press