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December 10th, 2008
Spark Blog: Video: Scientist Tanya Chartrand on Filming with Alan Alda

Tanya explaining her mimicry work to Alan

Duke University: The Fuqua School of Business

When I first heard about the Human Spark project, I was excited.  What makes us uniquely human is a question that has intrigued social scientists for over a century. Much of my work over the years has focused on aspects of social interaction that occur outside of conscious awareness, including behavioral mimicry (picking up the mannerisms and gestures of others without awareness or intent).  When I first talked with Graham about covering this research in his program, it was clear that he and Alan had in mind a very different kind of television program from what I’d seen in the past.  They truly wanted to dig in to what it means to be human, exploring perspectives from the neurological to the anthropological.  As a scientist, I’ve always been impressed with the collaborative work that Graham and Alan have done in the past, so I was thrilled to be included in this project.

Tanya watched the action from next door, via hidden cameras in the experiment room. Note the Human Spark crew filming Alan being subtly mimicked.

The day of taping was fun and interesting for me.  I don’t often directly observe my participants interacting with the confederates in my studies.  But we had Alan go through one of my typical experiments as if he were a participant.  My graduate students played the roles of the confederate and experimenter and interacted with Alan.  One of them mimicked his nonverbal behaviors, including his mannerisms, posture, gestures, and other motor movements.  Alan didn’t notice the mimicry (as our participants never do), but at the end of the interaction it was clear that he and the confederate were having a good time and enjoying the task together.  In fact, our research has found that mimicry during social interactions leads to more enjoyment of the task and liking between interaction partners.

My participation in this project has energized me to think at a broader level, connecting research on nonverbal behaviors to more micro and macro perspectives in an effort to better understand what it means to be human.

– Tanya Chartrand, Duke University

Watch Tanya describe what it was like for her as a scientist to be involved in a television shoot for The Human Spark.

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