Big Themes in COBRA: Behavioural Alignment

When you scroll through the projects listed on the Cobra website, one word seems to pop up frequently: alignment. What does this mean, and why is it interesting?

Let’s first look at a scenario everyone has experienced: you are in a room full of people. Somebody yawns. Within a few minutes, everybody seems to be yawning constantly; perhaps the mere act of reading these sentences is making you yawn (I’m yawning while writing this!). Apparently, when it comes to yawning, people tend to imitate or mimic others.

Source: Pixabay

However, yawning is not the only behaviour we copy from others: during a conversation, we tend to start speaking more similarly to our conversational partners. We change our pitch, volume, speech rate, and even accents, to mimic those features of our conversational partner. Similarly, we may start copying the words our conversation partner is using. For example, you might suddenly find yourself referring to a soft, comfortable seat as a “couch”, even though you usually use the word “sofa”. The phenomenon of linguistic similarity is often referred to as alignment, but it has several names: in the literature it can also be referred to as  accommodation or entrainment, terms that sometimes claim to highlight different nuances and aspects of the overall phenomenon. In this blog post, we will just call it alignment.

Learning more about why people have this tendency to mimic each other’s language may shed light on mimicry in other social behaviours such as yawning. It may also shed light on the inner workings of conversations; after all, a conversation is a highly complex process in which conversational partners must be well-attuned to one another, to ensure understanding and avoid interruptions and misunderstandings. The phenomenon of alignment is probably more than just a mechanism to facilitate dialogue: it may also be an important mechanism of social understanding. Research has shown that alignment is associated with many positive social measures, such as increased feelings of closeness, effective communication, and increased task performance (e.g. Chartrand & Bargh, 1999; Fusaroli et al., 2012; Levitan et al., 2012; Nenkova, Gravano & Hirschberg, 2008). Researching alignment may thus teach us about the way we coordinate conversations and, ultimately, perhaps even about social affiliation.

There are several theories as to why alignment occurs: Giles et al.’s Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT, 1991) states that we align or disalign to people to emphasise or minimise the social distance between ourselves and our conversational partners. Similarly to how you may lean towards someone you like, and lean away from someone you do not like, you may alter your language to more closely mirror the language of somebody you want to get along with, while you may purposefully change your language to emphasise the difference between you and that conversational partner you don’t really like. On the contrary, other theories state that the phenomenon of alignment occurs automatically, and is not mediated by factors such as social distance (e.g. Pickering and Garrod, 2004, 2013). Why alignment occurs is still unknown. Several ESR projects aim to elucidate different aspects of this question: for example, Byron (ESR 10) is looking at the effect of non-nativeness on alignment, and Joanna (ESR 11) is looking at the way cognitive processes, such as our ability to infer what somebody else is thinking, affect alignment.

Interestingly, some of our ESRs are not looking at alignment between humans, but at alignment in technological applications: Greta (ESR 6) is investigating word choice alignment between humans and robots, while Carol (ESR 14) is researching speech alignment between humans and robots.

Additionally, it is important to note that alignment does not exist only on the linguistic level: some ESRs are not looking at synchrony in speech or language, but are investigating synchrony between brains: for example, Dorina (ESR 2) is investigating whether increased synchrony in speech is associated with increased between-brain synchronisation, while Emilia (ESR 3) is researching the role of prediction in between-brain synchrony. Tom (ESR 5) is looking at alignment in yet another modality: physiology. Tom is looking at the relationship between alignment at the phonetic level, and how this is affected by physiological processes such as breathing.

Although alignment occurs around us almost constantly, there are many open questions about why it occurs, what influences it, and whether there is a pattern in alignment in different modalities and at different levels. By combining findings from several different projects in Cobra, we hope to find the answers to some of these questions.

If you are interested in learning more about alignment, the references below might be a good starting point. We would also recommend keeping an eye on this blog to stay updated on the research we are conducting, and what this teaches us about alignment. Of course, you can also reach out to any of the ESRs – we will be more than happy to talk to you!

Follow us on Twitter (@CobraNetwork)  and Instagram (@conversationalbrainsmscaitn) to stay up to date.

Author: Joanna Kruyt, ESR11, @_JoannaK_

Editors: Lena-Marie Huttner, ESR 1, @lena_huttner and Tom Offrede, ESR5, @TomOffrede

Feature image taken from Ayrolles, A., Brun, F., Chen, P., Djalovski, A., Beauxis, Y., Delorme, R., … & Dumas, G. (2021). HyPyP: a Hyperscanning Python Pipeline for inter-brain connectivity analysis. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 16(1-2), 72-83.

If you want to know more about our projects and the ESRs working on them, please look under the Training tab.


Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: the perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(6), 893.

Fusaroli, R., Bahrami, B., Olsen, K., Roepstorff, A., Rees, G., Frith, C., & Tylén, K. (2012). Coming to terms: Quantifying the benefits of linguistic coordination. Psychological science, 23(8), 931-939.

Giles, H., Coupland, N., & Coupland, J. (1991). Accommodation theory: Communication, context, and consequence. In: H. Giles, J. Coupland, and N. Coupland, eds., Contexts of accommodation: Developments in applied sociolinguistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–68.

Levitan, R., Gravano, A., Willson, L., Beňuš, Š., Hirschberg, J., & Nenkova, A. (2012). Acoustic-prosodic entrainment and social behavior. In Proceedings of the 2012 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human language technologies (pp. 11-19).

Nenkova, A., Gravano, A., & Hirschberg, J. (2008). High frequency word entrainment in spoken dialogue. In Proceedings of ACL-08: HLT, Short Papers (pp. 169-172).

Pickering, M. J., & Garrod, S. (2004). Toward a mechanistic psychology of dialogue. Behavioral and brain sciences, 27(2), 169-190.Pickering, M. J., & Garrod, S. (2013). An integrated theory of language production and comprehension. Behavioral and brain sciences, 36(04), 329-347.

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