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From Mimicry to Trust: A Tinbergian Approach

Project description

Explaining our decision to trust or distrust

When dealing with others, we often rely on quick non-verbal biological messages, as in mimicry (an evolved resemblance between two different organisms) to verify another person’s real emotions, intentions, empathy and trustworthiness. Psychologists, however, are still trying to understand specific processes and effects of mimicry. In this context, the EU-funded CoPAN project aims to use a novelty theoretical Tinbergian framework to explain which forms of mimicry are empathic and study their role for our decisions to trust or to distrust. Specifically, it will examine both biological and psychological factors to understand the function, mechanisms and development of mimicry. A comparative study involving bonobo, the closest relative of humans amongst apes, will enable the researcher to explain the basics of our mechanisms of prosocial behaviour.


Many daily decisions are made through quick evaluations of another’s trustworthiness, especially when they involve strangers. Individuals rely on a partner’s tractable characteristics, including expressions of emotion. These are readily mimicked even down to the physiological level. I here propose to investigate which forms of mimicry are empathic and inform decisions of trust and distrust. The mimicry-empathy linkage has come under discussion with the publication of counter-examples in biology and failures of replication in psychology, making the question of what mimicry entails even more important. The key role emotional expressions play in our daily life positions this revived debate around mimicry at the forefront of emotion science. Scientific advancement in this field, however, demands a completely new theoretical and methodological approach. Therefore, I will place mimicry within the Tinbergian framework. Fundamentally, this means that I will incorporate biological and psychological approaches to the study of mimicry and during dyadic interactions, investigate different forms of mimicry simultaneously, e.g. facial mimicry, contagious blushing, pupil mimicry, and their 1) Function: what they are good for. Using economic games, I will study which mimicry forms are related to empathy and inform social decisions; 2) Mechanism: how they operate on the neurophysiological level; 3) Development: how mimicry develops over the lifespan and which mimicry forms are phylogenetically continuous and shared with the bonobo, our closest living relative and link to our last common ancestor. For the first time, humans and bonobos will be directly compared on the basis of their mimicry and trust. This comparison can revolutionize the way humans perceive themselves when it comes to prosocial behaviour.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 500 000,00
2311 EZ Leiden

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West-Nederland Zuid-Holland Agglomeratie Leiden en Bollenstreek
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 500 000,00

Beneficiaries (1)