A stranger approaches you on the street and asks for your help. Perhaps she needs a quarter for a parking meter, or he can’t find a local business. You can imagine a lot of factors that would affect your response – are you in a hurry? Does the person asking look trustworthy? Do you have a quarter or know where the business is?
You might not think that it would make a difference if she wore a button for your favourite sports team or he carried a book by your favourite author… but it would. Many different studies have shown that we are more likely to help, cooperate with or pay attention to a person who is similar to us in some way.
For example, in the early 1970s when most university students dressed in one of two styles (“hippie” or “straight”), studies found that students were more likely to lend a dime to or sign a petition for another student if he or she was dressed in the same style.
More recently, a team led by Jerry Burger used fake answers on a questionnaire to lead study participants to believe that a fellow participant was very similar to themselves. The “fellow participant” (who was working with the experimenters) then asked the real participant a favour: to read and provide written feedback on an eight-page essay. More than 75% agreed, compared to less than half of those participants who believed that the other participant was very dissimilar to themselves.
Even a similar name can make a difference. Research by Randy Garner found that people receiving a request to fill out a survey were nearly twice as likely to comply if the cover letter was signed by someone with a name similar to their own (for example, Bob Greer in a letter addressed to Robert Gregor) than if signed by someone with a random name.
It works in children, too. One study found that an anti-smoking program aimed at seventh-grade students was effective only when it used same-age peer leaders as teachers.
I’m not suggesting you pretend to have traits in common with the people you’re trying to influence. But it seems to make sense to choose a spokesperson who matches your audience. Don’t have an adult tell teens about the risks of drunk driving; have another teen do it. Don’t have a bank manager give a talk about money to new immigrants; look for a recent immigrant who’s gone through experiences similar to those of her audience.
You know you can trust me on this because I’m, um, Homo sapiens… and I spend time online… and I, er, read blogs. Just like you!