The Influence of Fleeting Attraction

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Compliance to a simple request can be doubled by the most innocent manipulation.

There’s little doubt that friends are easier to persuade than strangers. That emotional connection and shared history is often enough to get the poor wretches doing things they’d rather avoid, like helping us move home.

Forgive the mercenary language, but friendship is a fantastic lever for persuasion and influence, a lever we happily push on every day.

But how much does someone have to like us before we can start to influence them? And, more to the point, can only the most fleeting attraction help us persuade them to comply with a request?

Mere similarity

Jerry Burger and colleagues at Santa Clara University used a sneaky experimental set-up to test this out (Burger et al., 2001). On arrival at the lab, participants were told the study was about first impressions and were asked to choose 20 adjectives which best described them from a list of 50 supplied.

The idea, they were told, was that they would swap lists with another participant in the experiment, then fill out some more questionnaires. After which, experiment over; back to the student bar. In fact the real test was coming.

The 20 adjectives from the ‘other person’ weren’t really from another person, it was part of the experimental manipulation. By varying the number of adjectives the ‘other person’ had ticked, the researchers were dividing participants into three groups:

  • Similar: this group thought the other person had ticked 17 of the same adjectives.
  • Neutral: 10 adjectives matched.
  • Dissimilar: had only ticked 3 of the same adjectives.

The experimenters were manipulating liking between participants and the ‘other person’ by using what psychologists call the ‘mere similarity’ effect. This is people’s tendency to like others more because of some slight similarity with themselves. It could be a friend in common or something as trivial as their names starting with the same letter.

So, when participants left the lab, what a surprise, the person they thought they had been exchanging self-descriptive adjectives with just happened to be walking down the corridor with them.

Then the moment of truth. In passing the participant was asked for a favour: would they mind reading an 8-page essay and providing a page of feedback?

Compliance doubled

Even this seemingly trivial manipulation of adjectives-in-common had a measurable effect. People who thought they were dissimilar only complied with the request 43% of the time. This went up to 60% in the neutral condition. But in the similar condition, compliance went up to an impressive 77%, almost double the dissimilar condition.

The experimenters also did the same experiment in a couple of other ways but reached the same conclusion. Whether the fleeting attraction was caused by choosing the same adjectives or sitting together silently for a couple of minutes, it was enough to double compliance to a request.

This experiment suggests that fleeting attraction can be remarkably powerful in changing ‘no’ into ‘yes’. We process relatively small requests in an automatic way, using simple rules-of-thumb. When asked for a small favour by a stranger, we make a snap judgement on how much we like them based on trivial information, and this can have a huge influence on our response.

Image credit: Derek

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 1 November 2010

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