How Can Similarities Covertly Influence People?

We live in a largely globalized, multi-cultural world. The United States (as well as many other large, industrialized nations) has become a veritable melting pot of different ethnicities.

Guys like Thomas Friedman have acknowledged that ‘the world is flat’ and that we now live by different rules under globalization. Despite these monumental changes in the way we live and work, social psychologists and social scientists have pointed to the fact at the very core of our beings, we remain the same. We are driven by the same impulses that made us one of the most dominant species on this planet.

We may be sporting iPhones now with 4G but at our very core we are still warriors preoccupied with survival. You would do well to remember this when you are dealing with different people – because no matter how educated and sophisticated people are, deep down they share the same instinctual drives with you and me. They are not as infallible and foolproof as they are thinking.

Need proof? Let me tell you a story. In the year 1993 the town of Quincy (located in Illinois) was devastated by floods.

Everyone was feeling very pessimistic and hopeless at that time because supplies were running out and it appeared that very little help was coming immediately. Then everyone suddenly brightened – because another town was contributing a torrent of provisions. The generous town was Quincy (located in Massachusetts).

The two towns had no historical ties but the other town chose to help this town instead of all the other towns that have been hit with the natural calamity. How can we explain this somewhat strange move by another town that had no real affinity with the town of Quincy in Illinois?

To understand why this happened, we must turn to social psychology. Social psychology has long pointed out that people were most likely to be supportive of other people that showed some similarities.

By similarities, I am referring specifically to traits and objects that are shared by both parties involved. Why are similarities so important to people? Several years ago, social scientists conducted a different study that focused on children’s reactions to pictorial depictions of people.

Essentially, what they did was they used a single image of a boy or girl and made different copies. Each copy sported a different skin color so in the end, you would have a collection of identical images with different ‘skin colors’.

When the researchers showed the images to the children (which are of different ethnicities), they were astounded by the fact that the children felt more affinity to the representations of people who look more like them. This study reflects a basic fact about humans – we gravitate toward individuals that are similar to us. It is a survival instinct.

We do this because instinctually we believe that our group would take care of us more readily than other groups. Some degree of aversion to differences is also rooted in our instinctual ‘makeup’. This aversion to difference applies to every aspect of our personal lives, professional lives and even in the plainest social interactions.

You can see this most plainly in bars, schools or even public libraries. People feel more at ease when they are with people they know. People feel more comfortable hanging out with individuals who have identified with a particular lifestyle or way of life. And people are more likely to be supportive of another person if he shows that he is ‘one of the group’.

A recent study headed by social researcher Randy Garner confirms this. In Garner’s study, the researcher sent out a large number of mails to completely random individuals. Garner did not know any of the respondents and the respondents had no idea that they were chosen for a study that aimed to discover the power of similarities in social interactions.

The researcher wanted the respondents to fill up a form and mail it back to him so that he could record the collected data. Sounded simple enough, right? Here’s the twist: Garner wanted to know how the random respondents would react to name differences and name similarities.

Garner split the respondents into two groups. One group of respondents received mails from people whose names had no spelling or phonetic similarities at all. Another group received mails from people who had a similar-looking or similar-sounding name. For example, a guy in the second group who was name Jake Smith may have received a mail from someone name Blake Fitch.

The researcher played around with many possibilities and permutations but one thing remained constant – the similarity in the names had to be obvious and the similarities had to be striking enough to get the attention of the subject.

The result of the study proved that Garner’s initial theory was correct – people who received mail from someone who had a similar-sounding name were more likely to fill up the form and mail it back to the researcher than people who received mail from someone whose name had no similarities at all with their own names.

This might look sketchy at first but you can really see how people can easily agree to do something for a complete stranger just because he had a similar-sounding name! The individuals who did mail back their responses to the researcher may have not thought much about their decisions but the statistics point at a constant tendency that cannot be ignored at all.

How can you use this to your advantage? Simple: when you are interacting with someone, be sure to point out genuine similarities between you and the other party. Do not invent similarities! It won’t have the same effect because invented similarities would have to be followed up with even more fictional details.

Find common ground and delve into those commonalities to establish rapport with the other person. Think small and big similarities – because any level of similarity will help you persuade and influence the other person. Trust me – this works!

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