Can’t leave your phone alone? You’re just trying to blend in

Keep checking your smartphone without knowing why? You may be unconsciously copying those around you, according to Italian research into the ‘chameleon effect’

Name: The Chameleon Effect.

Age: About 22 years old. It was discovered and named by the sociologist John A Bargh and the social psychologist Tanya L Chartrand, who published a paper about it in 1999.

Fascinating. And what is it, exactly? The unconscious tendency to mimic others’ behaviour.

I thought chameleons were those lizards best known for their ability to change colour in order to blend into their surroundings? That’s true. It might not be the best-named effect, but it’s still fascinating. And there’s an interesting new twist to it.

Yawn! Oi!

No, that wasn’t a bored yawn, it was a yawn to see if you did, too. Oh, I see. Yes, “contagious yawning” is a good example of the phenomenon. Even lions have been observed doing it.

Copycats. Go on then, what’s new? Researchers in Italy have observed it within the context of smartphone use.

Among lions? No! Nor chame-lions. People. That’s according to behavioural experts at the University of Pisa, anyway. They studied 184 people – who were in their natural social environments and weren’t aware they were being observed – and found that when someone looks at their mobile phone, about half the people monitored nearby will start looking at their own within 30 seconds.

Why does it happen? It’s thought that mammals have evolved to unconsciously mimic each other’s behaviour, which might help with group bonding.

You’re yawning, too. You’re one of us. Come in, group yawn everyone, join the gang! Or pride, even. But yeah, that kind of idea.

What are the social benefits of staring into a phone? Exactly, that’s the anomaly. Phone use is generally a solitary, insular activity. “Smartphones can increase social isolation through interference and disruption with real-life, ongoing activities,” Elisabetta Palagi, from the University of Pisa, told the New Scientist.

So we do it, unconsciously, even though there are probably no benefits. Presumably these are young people we’re talking about? Not only. Neither age nor sex had any affect on the smartphone mimicry response.

When was this research carried out, by the way? Yeah, good point. Between May and September last year. So during the pandemic. And the researchers admitted it was hard to know whether the response was affected by the pandemic, lockdown or social isolation.

Do say (or, more likely, text, Snapchat or Instagram): “Hi, it’s me, the one waving across the table. I’m only on here because you are, I couldn’t help it. But I’ll put mine down if you put yours down. How ’bout it, babe?”

Don’t say (or sing): “Desert loving in your eyes all the way / If I listen to your lies, would you say, I’m a man without conviction …” (That was the Karma Chameleon effect in action …)

• This article was amended on 24 June 2021. “Desert loving in your eyes all the way” is the first line of Karma Chameleon, not “There’s a loving in your eyes all the way” as an earlier version said.

The GuardianTramp

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