Friends of Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Experiences of mimicry in eating disorders”, by Erwin, S. R.; Liu, P. J.; Nicholas, J.; Rivera-Cancel, A.; Leary, M.; Chartrand, T. L. and Zucker, N. L. (2022), in which authors carry out a study to know how mimicry and nonverbal imitation works in social relationships when it comes about people who suffer from eating disorders.
In general, it has been shown that comparing oneself to others contributes to an increased likelihood of eating disorders. One example of this is in pro-anorexia online communities, where people share photos of the results of their dietary restrictions, as well as highly dangerous and health-damaging strategies designed to lose weight.
Experts suggest that comparison with others may compromise the effectiveness, and possibly the safety, of inpatient treatment settings, and even go further and affect those who are not hospitalized, causing, for example, patients to learn new harmful behaviors.
Despite compelling examples of explicit mimicry being problematic, mimicry has not been systematically studied with an eating disordered population.
One potentially fruitful area of research focuses on how people with a history of an eating disorder respond to being mimicked by others. For, while examples of social networks and contagion in a treatment setting describe potentially dangerous mimicry processes, there are others that have been associated with prosocial behaviors and increased affiliation among typically developing individuals.
Previous research on mimicry found that engaging in similar behavior creates feelings of empathy and relatedness among interactants. Other research found that when therapists mimicked the body position of their patients, the patients perceived a greater level of expressed empathy on their part.
Imitation processes often require both physical and emotional closeness, a certain degree of intimacy in relationships. However, people with anorexia and/or bulimia have been reported to experience interpersonal difficulties characterized by mistrust, negative interactions and conflicts with others. For people with restrictive eating behaviors, fear of intimacy may be characterized by avoidance of expressing feelings of personal importance to others.
Since intimate interpersonal relationships necessarily involve some degree of dependence on another person, avoiding relationships makes these individuals feel more secure. However, it is also detrimental to them, since secure and close relationships promote recovery from eating disorders. Therefore, it is important to identify the barriers they create to developing these intimate relationships.
On the other hand, evidence of early disruptions in attachment may contribute to this reluctance toward intimacy. More specifically, insecure attachment with early caregivers.
In summary, people with eating disorders possess a number of characteristics that make their interpersonal relationships different, more complex, and influenced by multicausal factors.
The present study examines how adults with a history of an eating disorder react when a therapist subtly mimics them. The therapist subtly mirrored the participants’ postures, movements, and gestures. In addition, there was a control group, that is, a group of participants whom the therapist did not try to imitate.
There was a final sample of 118 people, all of them women, with an average age of 21 years.
It was found that, in all groups, the participants who were not imitated rated the therapist as nicer, and the interaction as smoother, than the participants who were imitated.
There is a large body of research supporting that subtle mimicry increases comfort, however, it is possible that these prosocial influences have been downplayed due to certain interpersonal factors.
Previous research has shown that, compared to healthy people, people with eating disorders are unconsciously more attentive to the bodies of others. It could be understood that the study participants may have been more sensitive to mimicry due to a hypervigilance inherent to the disorder.
Another explanation may be that, given the fears of intimacy and negative evaluation discussed above, it is possible that the experience of nonverbal mimicry is threatening due to possible rejection, contributing to increased scrutiny in interactions.
Authors encourage further research on this topic, arguing that it is very important to continue to investigate how the verbal behavior or perception of verbal behavior of people with conduct disorders differs from the verbal behavior or perception of verbal behavior of healthy people to better understand their social and cognitive functioning.
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