All you need to know about a social chameleon

In this blog post, we discuss what does it mean to be a social chameleon, and whether this is a good or a bad thing. 

Social chameleons change depending on the circumstances

Social chameleons go through life as if they were standing still and life would go through them: they are the sum of the things that happen to them – and that changes them every time.

They are transparent, versatile, “personal” like a mirror: they become other people depending on what you put in front of them…

A perfect example of a social chameleon: at a young age, he has already changed about ten jobs, and doesn’t know how many houses and how many cars.

In fact, every move (from one house to another, from one job to another…) seems to transform him completely – as if he is just a container that is filled each time with different content.

He changes his “beliefs” like his shirts (he changes his shirts very often, being a fashion victim).

No one knows exactly what he does, but he is known by everyone.  

Social chameleons don’t just want to make a good impression. They want and use all the weapons they have, to be adored by everyone.

Social chameleons will change their appearance, beliefs, desires depending on their interlocutor, often hiding their own opinions and true self.

Being yourself is not easy. Unfortunately, society often forces us to be what we are not. Why do we comply?

Simple, for fear of being rejected, of disappointment, of being alone. This is known to everyone.

But we must not forget that the main thing in life is to learn to be a person, not a character!

Being human means being able to respect other people with all their characteristics, points of view and qualities.

And that involves the ability to be honest, without blurring the boundaries of your personality and without giving up your values ​​for the sake of being accepted.

Social chameleons and psychological victims

University of Minnesota social psychologist Mark Snyder is an expert in exploring the universal need for social acceptance.

The scientist shares with us an interest regarding social chameleons. 

It seems that research has shown that people who are social chameleons are in fact extremely unhappy people.

As much as they seem to live perfect lives, they are actually deeply unsatisfied. 

The main purpose of these people is to be liked by others, and for this, they are able to go to extreme lengths.

To achieve this result, they will need to get used to thinking, feeling and doing things differently.

Think of it, how can you be happy if you live your whole life in contradiction with who you really are?

For social chameleons, all means are good. For the sake of success, they are ready to sacrifice their honour, principles and even their system of values.

And all for the sake of joining one group or for being recognized.  

What social chameleons do not realize, however, is that by trying to be liked by everyone, you often end up being extremely alone.

It is very difficult to find a true friend or partner if you do not reveal yourself in the relationship as you really are.

The chameleon effect: Why do we mimic the behaviour of others?

People are not as different from chameleons as you might think.

Of course, we are not lizards and we do not change our colour depending on the environment, but we have our own tricks in order to blend in society.

Research suggests that in social situations we tend to unconsciously imitate the people around us – a phenomenon that scientists call the “chameleon effect”.

Empathy or guilt

In 1999, researchers Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh of New York University conducted three experiments that describe how the chameleon effect works. 

In the first experiment, teams of participants and their partners (paid actors) took turns analyzing some photos.

When looking at the pictures, the actors smiled, had neutral expressions or touched their face with their hand, the participants in the study tended to imitate them.

They seemed to copy the actors’ behaviour unconsciously.

In the end, study participants said they did not even notice their teammates’ reactions.

Although these actions occurred unconsciously, the joint gestures improved the relationship between the study participants and their team partners.

This was demonstrated by the researchers in the second experiment. 

This time, some of the actors also copied the reactions and gestures of their teammates, while the rest maintained a neutral facial expression during the experiment.

The effect was unexpected! 

The study participants imitated their partner actors stated in greater numbers than they got along well with their partners and that the interaction between them was a pleasant one.

Not everyone is as prone to imitate the gestures of others. In the third experiment, the team first measured people’s empathy using Davis’ interpersonal reactivity index.

It measures how likely you are to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. 

Researchers have found that the more empathetic someone is, the more likely they are to imitate their partner’s manners.

The scientists said they expected this result because empathetic people pay more attention to those around them and have a deeper general perception of them.

The chameleon inside you

The mechanism behind the chameleon effect, the researchers say, is the perception-behaviour link.

Imitating what you see generally applies to micro-behaviours that you unconsciously copy: gestures, the way you sit in a chair, or the way you talk.

In other words, almost every movement we make in front of another person is contagious. “Contagious” does not have a pejorative meaning here, as mimicry seems to unite people.

According to the results of the above experiments, this imitation makes us feel closer to strangers.

Even if we don’t even consciously try to create a connection with them!

The chameleon effect often makes interactions more enjoyable, especially with strangers who have to guess our character based on superficial criteria, such as body language.

If you find yourself copying the gestures of those around you or imitating the accent of your interlocutor, don’t be ashamed. Remember that this shows pure empathy!

Are you a social chameleon or a social zebra? 

Truth be told, chameleon qualities may prove to be very useful in some cases, especially in certain jobs.

They are needed to influence, seduce, attract customers, gain trust and even manipulate.

For example, we can mention here jobs such as marketing, advertising, politics, acting – in all these cases sometimes you have to show diplomacy, you have to know how to make yourself pleasant and appreciated in order to have success.

We all, in one way or another, we all had to be social chameleons at some point in our lives.

However, according to Dr Mark Snyder, if a person really strives for emotional well-being, wisdom, and inner balance, they need to learn how to be a “social zebra.”

No matter where the zebra is and who or what is near it, such a person always remains unchanged (its stripes do not change).

This behaviour involves knowing your system of values and beliefs, setting healthy boundaries, but knowing how to mould yourself at the same time, to be flexible.

Thus, you will become a person truly admired and needed by people in their lives.

Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.

Conclusions

In this blog post, we discussed what does it mean to be a social chameleon, and whether this is a good or a bad thing. 

As we mentioned above, social chameleons tend to be very unhappy people.

However, in some cases, it is useful to try to be more empathetic and mimic your partner’s gestures, as will bring you two closer. 

Please feel free to ask any questions about social chameleons, or to comment in the content!

FAQ about a social chameleon

What does it mean to be a social chameleon?

To be a social chameleon it means to have the ability to adapt fast and change depending on the circumstances.

Social chameleons will often mimic the behaviour and gestures of others and have as main goal to be liked by everyone. 

What does it mean to call someone a chameleon?

Calling someone a chameleon means telling them that their behaviour, gestures and thoughts seem to change depending on the circumstances, on the people they talk with or on the environment they are in. 

What is the chameleon effect?

The chameleon effect refers to unconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviours of a person you are interacting with.

Research suggests that in social situations we tend to unconsciously imitate the people around us – a phenomenon that scientists call the “chameleon effect”.

Is it good to be a chameleon?

It is neither good nor bad to be a chameleon. In some situations, depending on your means,  it is good to be a social chameleon as it brings you closer to the person you are talking to.

However, everything that goes to an extreme can be harmful. 

Do chameleons have personalities?

Yes, chameleons, like humans, can have different personalities.

Some of them prefer to be in more light, some have different food cravings. 

Further reading

  1. Living in Two Worlds: On Being a Social Chameleon with Asperger’s, by Dylan Emmons 
  1. Temporal Aspects of the Chameleon Effect and Hospitality: The Link Between Mimicry, Its Impact, and Duration (Kulesza,2018)
  1. The Chameleon Effect as Social Glue: Evidence for the Evolutionary Significance of Nonconscious Mimicry ( Lakin, 2003)

References

Are You a Social Chameleon or a Zebra? – Psychology Today

The Face of the Chameleon: The Experience of Facial Mimicry for the Mimicker and the Mimickee ( Kulesza, 2014)

The Chameleon Effect as Social Glue: Evidence for the Evolutionary Significance of Nonconscious Mimicry ( Lakin, 2003)

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