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Chameleon effect: what is it?

There is a large variety of syndromes and psychological disorders, many of which are named after a metaphor that explains their effect. Peter Pan, Jerusalem, Othello’s syndrome, the Ben Franklin effect, Mandela … But one very particular is the so-called chameleon effect.

Just the chameleons, those small scaly reptiles with large colored eyes and an extensible tongue. They are famous for one feature in particular, that of changing the color of the skin. Despite this peculiarity, the popular belief that these animals camouflage themselves to disguise themselves is not entirely correct. In the same way, the chameleon effect in humans is not representative of people who change color, but of the way they change it.

Chameleons that change color

Only some species of chameleons are able to change color. These reptiles are colorless and the change in hue does not always occur in accordance with the surrounding environment. In fact, most of the variations are due to a physiological condition: chameleons react to temperatures and changes in the hour.

The color can also change on other occasions due to certain psychological factors. For example, in the presence of an opponent or a female specimen. These reptiles can also change color during the fight, indicating whether they are frightened or furious. The different color, therefore, is nothing more than a means of communication between chameleons.

People who change color

In one of Woody Allen’s films, Zelig, a curious character appears. Played by the same director, the main character Leonard Zelig makes his appearance in different scenes interacting with various people. Until now everything is normal, except that Zelig takes on a different look every time. When he is with black people, his complexion and tone of voice change. When he is in the presence of Jews, his beard and sideburns grow. When you find yourself with overweight people, your weight also increases.

This strange case is analyzed in the film by Dr. Eudora Fletcher, played by Mia Farrow, who diagnoses Zelig with an extreme case of insecurity that leads him to disguise himself among people, adapting his appearance from time to time in order to be accepted. Zelig has the supernatural ability to change his appearance to adapt to the environment in which he finds himself, and for this reason he is known as a chameleon man. After lying about reading a book, Moby Dick, to feel included, the need for acceptance becomes a physical and psychological problem.

“You are like the chameleon that changes according to the occasion”

As is evident, Woody Allen’s film is a parody in his attempt to take a caricature to the extreme. It shows an unreal situation that can help us better understand what the chameleon effect consists of.

This syndrome is also called emotional contagion and consists in the tendency to try and internalize emotions similar to those we observe and, in the same way, to condition those of others. It is a process in which the person is a victim of the influence of others, but at the same time influences other people or groups with their own emotions and behaviors.

The chameleon effect

The term chameleon effect defines a reality in which the subject acts almost as a mirror for other people. He is therefore led to imitate the emotions of others or at least those which he unconsciously believes that others manifest. The effect is not limited to this: postures and facial expressions, language, tone, accent and lexicon are also imitated.

Our natural reaction when someone has a bout of laughter is to laugh. When we are surrounded by people with an accent different from ours, it doesn’t take long for our cadence to change. If we sit next to a person with crossed legs, we will probably end up sitting the same way. Although this effect is not always produced, we tend to do it on several occasions knowingly or unknowingly.

Function of the chameleon effect

The function of the chameleon effect, from an evolutionary perspective, was intuited at the time by Charles Darwin. Our mood is partly determined by the gestures we make. At the same time, we are also influenced by the signals emitted by others. All this brings greater personal well-being and allows us to integrate better into a group. Without realizing it, some small signals from others show us how to act and our mirror neurons lead us to imitate them.

Probably each of us has a Zelig in it. When we are with other people, we adapt to them to achieve the same emotional state. Emotions are like viruses, they spread around us. We are programmed to infect and get infected by emotions since we are born. If we experience positive emotions, others will also experience them. If, on the contrary, we experience negative emotions, others will do it too. Although this process is largely unconscious, we ourselves can take the first step with our positive emotions.

“I am a chameleon, I let myself be influenced by everything around me. If Elvis can do a certain thing, I can do it too. If the Everly Brothers can do it, Paul and I can too. The same happens with Dylan. “

-John Lennon-

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