Watch two people on a date: If things are going well, they are probably crossing their legs and tilting their heads in the same direction. Without realizing it, we nonverbally imitate people with whom we feel a rapport and, under many circumstances, we also tend to like people who mimic us. 

So it’s only human nature for financial planners to mimic clients in meetings to establish a bond. However, a new study to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, has found that when people are reminded of money, they respond differently and mimicking can backfire.

In the study, 72 students, half male and half female, did a simple task on the computer while the screen’s background showed either pictures of money or shells. Then each participant had a conversation with a colleague who either unobtrusively mimicked them, in normal ways, or did not mimic them at all.  

“Being mimicked typically leaves people with a warm glow, but this experiment showed that mimicry can diminish liking if people have been reminded of money,” said authors Jia Liu from the University of Groningen, Kathleen Vohs at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota and Dirk Smeesters at the Rotterdam School of Management. When the researchers asked the students how much they liked the colleague, it turned out that they disliked the people who mimicked them if they’d seen the picture of money.

Does this mean you should sit on your hands in client meetings? Probably not.

It does suggest, however, that building trust while talking about money matters is a different challenge than building trust in other situations. Other research has shown that when people are prompted to think about money, they become more inclined to independence, to persist longer on hard tasks without asking for help and to prefer solo activities.

What may be most important is to reinforce your clients’ sense of autonomy.  “Financial planners' advice is not unsolicited,” Liu told Financial Planning. “In one of our papers that will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, we show that people reminded of money tend to deviate from unsolicited peer opinions, presumably as a route to reassert their ability to behave autonomously. When people seek advice, the effect of money reminders might be less detrimental, but we do not have empirical evidence to support this conjecture yet.”