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The entire Navigate the Chaos collection of all 365 blog posts is now available in a paperback entitled Navigate the Chaos (795 pages for $24.99). A smaller collection of thoughts from the Navigate the Chaos collection is available in paperback entitled Wonder (94 pages for $4.99)

How often are you a chameleon?

Today is November 11 and the Navigate the Chaos to consider is “how often are you a chameleon?” To translate one dream after another in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world some people have learned the value of becoming a chameleon.

Like other strategies involved with Navigating the Chaos, leveraging the chameleon approach is nuanced and involves a few critical considerations before attempting.

Commenting on the first dynamic of being a chameleon, Jourdan Travers wrote in an August 15, 2023, Psychology Today article about the necessity of maintaining one’s sense of self.

According to Travers “In the ever-evolving dynamic of a long-term relationship, a subtle adaptation or compromise for the sake of your bond can be a beautiful expression of love and understanding. When this adaptation turns into ‘chameleoning,’ or the act of altering your personality depending on the social situation, however, it can negatively affect the vitality of your connection.”

There is no value in navigating the chaos and putting in the daily grind to translate one dream after another into reality if you have lost your sense of self while trying to please others in your life. A far safer and practical application of using the chameleon approach to navigate the chaos is when people use it to maneuver in a specific situation.

As Bernard Rosen wrote in his 2001 book Masks and Mirrors: Generation X and the Chameleon Personality “Successful chameleons are exceptionally sensitive and very clever, as they must be to get away with the tricks they play on unsuspecting opponents.” Today’s reflection involves three applications to consider.

First, people rely on the chameleon strategy when they feel as though they are in danger. Like the chameleon who relies upon a protective coloration whenever danger arises, so too do those who feel as though calamity is upon them. Navigating the chaos can indeed be precarious at times.

To help survive difficult situations, some people may resort to deception and, like the chameleon, pretend to be what they are not. Hiding their real intentions, those who employ the chameleon strategy understand the necessity of becoming someone they are not in order to survive the situation.

Another dynamic to consider is that people rely on the chameleon strategy when they want to please whomever they are within the moment. By blending inconspicuously in the group, chameleons can navigate a setting with people that would seem daunting for others to survive. Becoming a chameleon allows one to appear congenial to others, thus hiding their true feelings.

Expressing their true feelings in the moment would be far too risky. By maintaining focus on the next step, people rely on the chameleon strategy to focus on navigating the treacherous conversation with an untrustworthy people or group of people by tricking others into thinking one way, all the while keeping their emotions, thoughts, and intentions private.

A third dynamic with today’s strategy is an understanding that the chameleon effect is an unknowing mimic of other people’s behaviors, and it’s perfectly normal. If you live or interact with another person or people for long enough, you are bound to pick up some of their behaviors, mannerisms, facial expressions, and gestures. You may, for example, notice the chameleon effect in couples who have been together for a long time, or best friends. The chameleon effect has been shown to have a positive impact on human social interactions.

According to research conducted by psychologists Tanya L. Chartrand and John A. Bargh who published a 1999 article “The chameleon effect: The perception–behavior link and social interaction” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “the chameleon effect refers to nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviors of one's interaction partners, such that one's behavior passively and unintentionally changes to match that of others in one's current social environment.”

In his April 4, 2017, Psychology Today article “Are You a Social Chameleon or a Zebra?” Ronald E. Riggio proposes the following duality to the reader “Are you the kind of person who blends in with the crowd, who changes persona to meet the needs of the situation? A social chameleon? Or are you the type of person who displays a consistent personality regardless of the situation or with whom you are interacting? We’ll call that type a zebra because a zebra doesn’t change its stripes.”

For Riggio, social chameleon’s practice a high degree of self-monitoring in order to blend in with others while zebras have a low degree of self-monitoring and display consistent attitudes regardless of the situation. For those considering becoming a social chameleon, Riggio reminds them that “self-monitoring is a complex personality construct that includes attitudinal and motivational components (e.g., a high self-monitor wants to fit in and be accepted), as well as a set of social skills (i.e., being able to “read” others’ emotions and nonverbal cues; ability to alter and change one’s emotional expressions and behavioral displays).”

  • Have you relied upon the chameleon strategy to survive a dangerous situation?

  • Have you used the chameleon strategy to please others in a group setting?

  • Are you more often a chameleon or a zebra?

  • Do you feel as though being a chameleon is better, or worse, than being a zebra?

  • Do you find yourself trying to justify why one is better than another?

  • What do you think your degree of self-monitoring is?


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