Researchers have found that people were more likely to mimic others’ smartphone usage right after the 2020 lockdown compared to a year later, suggesting that social isolation heightened our sensitivity to digital social cues. Their findings, published in the Human Nature, also highlights the role of familiarity in this mimicry behavior.
A team of researchers led by Veronica Maglieri of the University of Pisa focused on the phenomenon of “mimicry” in smartphone use, examining whether people are more likely to pick up their phones if someone nearby does the same. The research compared observations from Italy right after the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 to data collected a year later in 2021.
The observational study involved 248 participants, comprised of 126 men and 122 women across various age groups. Unaware that they were part of a study, these individuals were observed in different settings such as workplaces, restaurants, and family gatherings.
Researchers observed participants in their natural settings, focusing on two main situations: experimental condition (EC), which is when someone picked up their phone and looked at the screen for at least five seconds, and control condition (CC), which is when someone picked up their phone but did not look at the screen.
Statistical models were used to analyze mimicry behavior across different times of day and social settings. In the EC, mimicry occurred 38.5% of the time. In the CC, mimicry occurred only 4.7% of the time. Mimicry was more common right after the 2020 lockdown, with a rate of 44.9% compared to 30% a year later in 2021, and was less common when food was present.
In other words, the study found that people were more prone to mimic smartphone use right after the 2020 lockdown, indicating that social isolation heightened our sensitivity to digital social cues. The data suggests that smartphones serve as an alternate way to connect socially, termed by researchers as “virtual grooming.” People were more likely to mimic the smartphone behavior of someone they are familiar with — and the decline in mimicry over time suggests that people’s social behaviors are adaptable and sensitive to changes in their environment.
“In conclusion, during the COVID-19 pandemic we carried out a naturalistic experiment on the effect of social isolation on the mimicry response in the use of smartphones,” the study authors wrote. “Our results not only confirmed the presence of the mimicry phenomenon but also showed that limited “live” social interactions can modify, at least in the short term, the ways we interact with others by making us more prone to engage in ‘virtual’ social interactions. The bright side of the coin unveiled by our findings is that such an effect seems to dissolve over time.”
While the study offers insightful findings on how pandemic lockdowns affected smartphone mimicry, there are several limitations that warrant mention. Firstly, the research is geographically constrained to Italy, which may not make the findings generalizable to other cultural or social contexts. Different countries have varying degrees of smartphone penetration and distinct cultural attitudes towards phone usage in social settings, which could influence mimicry behavior. In addition, the observational nature of the study may be subject to observer bias. Although the participants were unaware they were being observed, the researchers’ presence or the act of observation itself might subtly alter behavior.
The study, “Social Isolation Affects the Mimicry Response in the Use of Smartphones“, was authored by Veronica Maglieri, Anna Zanoli, Dimitri Giunchi, and Elisabetta Palagi.