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November 24th, 2008
Spark Blog: Mimicking Alan's Body Language

Alan Alda takes turns describing photos with Tanya’s confederate, Amy Dalton, who is discreetly mimicking his postures and movements. Photo by Larry Engel

Durham, NC

Today we’ve just finished shooting here at Duke University a series of experiments with Tanya Chartrand on how we humans unconsciously mimic each other, and how doing so helps us become more social.

Our social nature will be a major theme of The Human Spark – and it came up again today when Tanya made Alan the unwitting participant in a study of social mimicry. I’d kept Alan in the dark about today’s filming, so he had no idea what to expect when we sat him down in a room with a graduate student, who was described for him as a fellow participant in a study in interpreting pictures. In fact she subtly mimicked Alan’s body language – so subtly that he never caught on, but that should, if he was typical of the subjects in Tanya’s study, have made him feel more benign.

Alan Alda and Tanya Chartrand    

Alan and Tanya discuss her mimicry study while viewing footage from the hidden cameras in the testing room. Photo by Larry Engel

Alan and Tanya got so into the findings and implications of her research that it was hard knowing when to call cut, and when I did they’d simply set off on a new tack that soon had us rolling the camera again.

The day finished as days on the road with Alan usually do, dinner with the crew, going over what had happened during the shoot, enjoying the things that had gone both right and not quite as we expected – often the best moments – and speculating about the next shoot, which will be yet another angle on the Spark; a day at the North Carolina Zoo about an hour and half’s drive from here talking with Brian Hare about cooperation among chimpanzees, and how it is similar or different from human cooperation.

— Graham Chedd

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