New at Leuphana: Oliver Genschow - "Imitation and Free Will"

2023-01-20 Oliver Genschow is Heisenberg Professor of Psychology, in particular Cognitive, Social and Business Psychology at the Institute of Management and Organisation. In a research focus, he investigates how and why people imitate each other.

Prof. Dr Oliver Genschow on his appointment as Heisenberg Professor ©Leuphana/Marie Meyer
Prof. Dr Oliver Genschow on his appointment as Heisenberg Professor

Do you know this? You sit together, someone yawns and gradually everyone yawns - regardless of whether they are tired or not. You yawn yourself too. It happens so automatically that you hardly notice it in yourself.
Or: Two people are having a conversation that is important to both of them, such as a job interview or a date. One person crosses their legs (crosses their arms in front of their chest, looks at their watch, grabs their hair, etc.) and the other does the same. Such imitation takes place all the time, and equally in non-verbal behaviour, in speech and in emotions. This is where Oliver Genschow's research comes in: "I am interested in exactly how imitation works. Why do people imitate each other, what are the social implications and how does it work on a neurophysiological level?"

There is some evidence to suggest that imitation is due to what is known as a mirror neuron system. "Behind the term 'mirror neurons' is the idea," Genschow explains, "that observing and performing an action are neurophysiologically very similar. For example, when I see someone touching their nose, it activates similar areas in the brain as if I had touched my nose myself. So the observed behaviour is, as it were, preparing the way for my own behaviour." Imitation has very concrete socio-psychological advantages, as Genschow points out: "Babies and children learn very strongly through imitation - they parrot what their parents say, look very closely at what their parents or older siblings do and thus acquire their behaviour. In addition, imitation also fulfils a social function: if I am imitated by someone, I like that person more, feel a stronger social connection and act more pro-socially towards someone who imitates me. That is, imitation leads to a social bond between people - people connect better. This, in turn, can explain why we still automatically imitate other people in adulthood. Imitation just feels good and increases a social connection between interaction partners."

To further research imitation behaviour in humans, Genschow plans to set up an observational lab at Leuphana Labs. "There is still little research that investigates the underlying processes of imitation behaviour in real and complex social situations. At Leuphana, we want to put test participants in a social situation and then analyse their non-verbal behaviour using various methods such as motion tracking, high-resolution camera systems, heart rate monitors, skin conductance measurements and virtual reality."

Since imitation has positive social consequences and creates a sense of bonding between people, it is often assumed that social factors contribute to increased imitation. With considerable empirical effort, Genschow proved that this is not always the case: "One would think that someone who is empathic would imitate more strongly. Or that people imitate strangers more weakly than acquaintances. In trying to replicate these assumptions, I discovered that they are not true. Imitation is automatic and often independent of social factors. Nevertheless, there are factors that may well strengthen or weaken imitation. For example, we find that people imitate robots less than people. So when we imitate, we distinguish between humans and machines, but not between different humans."

In his research, Genschow regularly taps into existing basic assumptions in the literature - in a current project, for example, that on the observation of imitation. "Previous research on imitation is mainly interested in situations with two participants. This completely ignores the fact that most social interactions do not take place in pairs. Most interactions, such as those in families, on the train, in a lecture, in a café, or even political debates in parliament or in talk shows, never take place in isolation between two people, but are observed on the shelf by third parties. That's why I'm devoting more attention to the question of how imitation from the outside works. Our results so far indicate that the imitating persons do not appear more sympathetic, but rather are perceived as submissive and as having little power. The prosocial effects thus seem to occur above all when one is part of the social situation in which imitation is taking place. From an outside perspective, it seems quite different."

Even though Genschow is considered an expert on imitative behaviour, this is only one of many aspects of his research. On a more fundamental level, he is interested in the question of how perception and behaviour are connected and how perception triggers certain behaviours. This is particularly visible in imitation, but also affects completely different areas, such as free will. "To what extent does one's belief in free will influence one's behaviour towards other people? Our results show that people who strongly believe in free will are more likely to believe the behaviour of others is intentional than people who believe less strongly in free will." Put another way, "The less one believes in free will oneself, the more one is willing to forgive others for their mistakes. If I believe in free will a lot, I would hold people more accountable for their mistakes or stupidity and ultimately punish them more harshly."

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Prof. Dr Oliver Genschow completed his studies in Basel and Mannheim in 2012 with a doctorate on the question of how individuals react to environmental stimuli. After a post-doc at Ghent University in Belgium, he moved to the University of Cologne as a junior professor. In 2022, he was appointed to a Heisenberg Professorship at the Institute of Management and Organisation at Leuphana University Lüneburg.

In-Mind Magazine

In addition to his academic work, Oliver Genschow is committed to ensuring that scientific findings reach the wider society. Among other things, he is one of the four main editors of In-Mind Magazine. There, he and his team present psychological topics in a popular scientific way: Why do we believe in horoscopes? Can positive gender stereotypes also be sexist? How can empathy be conveyed during video calls? For his commitment to In-Mind, Oliver Genschow, together with the other main editors, received various science awards, such as the "Förderpreis Psychologie" of the German Society for Psychology (DGPs) for services in the field of science communication.