The Camouflaged Chameleon

Chameleon, that word does intrigue all of us right? The species which is the clade of the lizard family that can camouflage and blend into its surroundings to ward off prey often leaves us enchanted and curious. As children we are chameleons who observe, tail and mirror the thoughts, behaviour and actions of people around us. In our growing up years, we subconsciously, inadvertently and also intentionally emulate those around us which can assume the form of speech, actions, gestures, gaits, postures and walking styles. Well, they are common place and nothing goofy or irrational about it! We all do it and most of our learning is indeed a result of observational learning, looking upto someone or many to influence, direct and guide us be it using the right set of words, facial expressions, hand gestures or even the way we cross our legs. Naturally, I paid scant attention to my boys in their infancy when they did a lot of these and much more!

The first observation came from the Principal of the Montessori school who called my attention to the way my elder fella was walking with his heels up. A probe into the family revealed that his grandfather had a similar kind of walk. His squats with legs bent backward was also quite different and strange which was linked up to his aunt. Of course, they are probably genetical and not out of any observations. But what baffled me then were the peculiar mannerisms and queerness that my younger son did. Even at a young age he was a keen observer who would often differentiate the teachers based on the colour of their dresses and how they tied up their hair! His sharp observations often had us on tenterhooks as he was forever demanding new types of toys that never adorned any toy shop window. From the fabled autorickshaws with speakers fitted on to them announcing candidates standing for local elections to road rollers, we the hapless parents searched high and low for these observational toys, eventually giving up and trying to accommodate with make shift toys made by the least creative mom much to his chagrin! His demands grew exponentially to encompass his hawk eyes and we had to often yield to his desires on account of his frequent indispositions due to wheezing attacks. On a visit to the doctor’s clinic, he had secretly observed among a host of things, a ledger that was used to enter all and sundry details of the patient in a pre digital era. Back home, he described to me in his limited speaking skills the latest demand. A laborious task to someone who was at the other end of the spectrum with absolutely no sense of mindfulness and awareness of objects and people alike. The despair on his face and my frustration were on the same scale, when I turned my house inside out to fetch the diaries, books, journals, he was so desperate to be the doctor, not only with the stethoscope but with all the paraphernalia!!!

His eagerness to wear glasses was also heeded to very willingly as he would have naturally looked up to me, not as a role model but as someone who was different and born with glasses and not silver spoon! For a few days, he became the cynosure of all eyes with his spectacles that had plain lenses! That fad soon died down to be replaced with wrist bands, bandaids and the like, maybe he had seen his compatriots in the ground groaning and writhing in pain with a sprain or an injury which caught all the empathy and concern. He soon swathed himself in crepe bandages and plasters that drew all the attention. The obsession to mirror reached a crescendo when he replicated the signature of his Principal right down to the minutest details of the stroke, brushes, dots and lines, a perfect reproduction that was faithfully used as his own. I was amazed and proud like a mother hen at his style of using a signature at such a young age when others where learning the alphabets, until the day I discovered the true owner of the signature and realized that my son was infringing on IPR violations of forgery without the intention to cheat or deceive!!!

A revelation, a discovery of a behavioural trait after almost 20 years of some actions that passed off as seemingly obscure acts of mimicking or following the footsteps of others, copying or observational learning was recently uncovered by the man himself as “unintentional mirroring” or the ‘Chameleon effect’ studied, researched and experimented by two psychologists. The display of this often happens at infancy to gain attention, sympathy, empathy, adulation or praise is absolutely normal and done mostly to gain a sense of belongingness, rapport or oneness. The manifestation is largely seen in voice modulation, facial expressions and non verbal actions such as twirling of hair or rubbing the eyes, wagging their feet, mimicking the batting styles or dribbling prowess of their sports icons and often lays the foundation for strong social skills. As a teacher, I have witnessed this effect on children picking the accents of a dominant one in the pack, imitating the language, emotions and expressions of an outstanding or unparalleled student. Unknowingly, I have tried to reign supreme on these children to refrain from imitating and have their own identities by often quoting Oscar Wilde who said “Be yourself as everyone else is already taken”, I realize that a certain amount of observational learning is undoubtedly through Chameleon effect!!! Imitation can improve likeability and acceptability into a herd and the phenomenon was first given to the world by Chartrand and John Bargh, professors of psychology at New York University. It is mostly non-conscious and never deliberate to imitate, mimic or copy but comes up as a natural reaction to surroundings. The adoption of mannerisms come about without any realization and there is no conscious effort to emulate. The psychologists link it to the behaviour of primates and the evolution of humans. The famous movie maker Woody Allen in his film “Zelig” had portrayed this mirroring habits through a character that unwittingly takes on powerful characters around him. He slips into the character and adorns the personality and the garb and thus termed as a human chameleon which probably inspired the psychologists to coin the term “Chameleon effect”! The obsession to assimilate, absorb and slip into a similar role, psyche and demeanour may not be psychotic or neurotic but something that can binge on social well being and empathy traits.

So, will you cultivate the Chameleon effect?


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