Let’s say you are travelling as a tourist in America and happened to run into another Indian tourist who approaches you and asks for a dollar to put in a parking meter as he has run out of change. Would you agree to the request? Would it make any difference if the person was a tourist from Turkey? While you may insist that you would be just as likely to comply with either stranger’s request, research in psychology has consistently shown that this is not the case.
Although we may not consciously do so, numerous studies have shown that people are more likely to comply with requests from and do favours for people who are similar to themselves. Similarity can be assessed on a variety of factors: Whether the other person is the same nationality as you, went to the same school as you, or is from the same community as you. It has been shown that this tendency, referred to in research literature as “in-group favouritism bias”, can also lead to excluding people who are not similar to you.
Studies have shown that this effect occurs when we perceive someone to be similar to us because of their dress, accent, or even what they say. In one study, many marchers in an anti-war demonstration signed a petition from someone who was dressed similarly as them without even bothering to read the petition. Many sales training programmes also urge salespeople to try and match the postures, mood and verbal style of their prospects in order to enhance this perception of being similar to them. A study of salespeople showed that prospective customers were more likely to buy from someone who they thought was similar to them in age, religion, politics or even cigarette-smoking habits!
Given that we pick up even the more subtle cues to assess similarity (or its absence), it opens us up for potential manipulation by those who may pretend to be similar to us to influence our behaviour. Such people can send us false cues of similarity to draw a favourable response from us. Even small amounts of similarity seem to have an effect. One study showed that people were significantly more likely to respond to a survey when the cover letter was written by someone who had a name similar to that of the recipient.
Another potential danger of this bias is that it may prejudice us against those who are dissimilar to us. Every time you (knowingly or unknowingly) favour someone who is part of your in-group, you could potentially be hurting someone who is dissimilar to you. A study in the US showed that the in-group favouritism bias was responsible for African-Americans being less likely to get loans from banks than whites. The effect was found even after controlling for factors such as location, income and net worth. In fact, this unconscious increase in liking and identification with individuals who were similar to the loan officer had a greater effect on loan approval rate than any overt racism.
So, the next time you find yourself favouring a job candidate for an open position in your company or granting a sales contract to a company whose salesperson you seem to find very easy to do business with, ask yourself this question: Am I making this decision on the basis of merit alone or is there a chance that I may be falling a victim to in-group favouritism bias? Did I exclude others simply because they were dissimilar to me? Am I taking enough precautions to avoid being surrounded by or doing business with my own clones? The more frequently and thoroughly you assess the underlying basis of your liking or preference for an individual, the lower the chances of basing it on mere similarity.
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Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labowitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.