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?
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?
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.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Derek
Psychology of Persuasion
→ This post is part of a series on persuasion techniques:
- How to Influence People
- The Persuasive Power of Swearing
- Loudest Voice = Majority Opinion
- Don’t Take No For An Answer
- The Influence of Fleeting Attraction
- Caffeine Makes Us Easier to Persuade
- Persuasion: The Right-Ear Advantage
- Balanced Arguments Are More Persuasive
- The Battle Between Thoughts and Emotions in Persuasion
- Are Fast Talkers More Persuasive?
- Persuasion: The Sleeper Effect
- Communicating Persuasively: Email or Face-to-Face?
- The Influence of Positive Framing
- The Illusion of Truth
- 9 Propaganda Techniques in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11
- Persuasion: The Third-Person Effect
- 20 Simple Steps to the Perfect Persuasive Message
- Why Stories Sell: Transportation Leads to Persuasion
- How To Encourage People To Change Their Own Minds
- When Does Reverse Psychology Work?
- The One (Really Easy) Persuasion Technique Everyone Should Know
- The Single Most Effective Method for Influencing People Fast
- 9 Ways The Mind Resists Persuasion and How To Sustain or Overcome Them
- How To Make Persuasive Eye Contact