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Ursula Hess and Agneta Fischer

What is the role of emotional mimicry in intergroup relations? There are different theoretical accounts of the function and underlying processes of emotional mimicry. A review of research on emotional mimicry suggests that, in general, emotional mimicry reinforces existing group boundaries, rather than breaking or dissolving them. Specifically, there is consistent evidence that people tend to mimic similar others more than dissimilar others. Given that ingroup members are by definition more similar to each other than to outgroup members, this implies that the former are more likely to be mimicked than the latter. In turn, mimicry improves social bonds with others, which then facilitates ingroup relations. The most primitive and implicit pathway for mimicry is via embodiment, and it can only take place when there is an actual interaction between group members. To the degree that such processes are presumed to be automatic, it is likely that they tend to reinforce social exclusion of outgroup members. By contrast, the most explicit pathway to mimicry is via perspective taking, in which one deliberately tries to take the other’s perspective. This process does not require the actual presence of members of other groups, but some form of empathy when judging or expecting to meet other group members. This process is more amenable to top-down influences. The research on mimicry also converges on the notion that when mimicry (or in fact other forms of behavior matching) is present, interactions can be expected to be more affiliative. Thus, with effort, mimicry can also be a tool for improving intergroup relations. As always, however, it requires more effort to cross group boundaries than to stay within them.