The Psychology of Persuasion: How to Improve Your Marketing Efforts (Part 5 of 7 - Liking)

Updated: June 10, 2011

The Power of Physical Attraction

The liking principle is so powerful that "compliance professionals" (i.e., sales representatives, charitable organizations, political activists, etc.) use it as part of their strategy to persuade us to respond to their requests: before they do anything, they try to get us to like them!

But what are the factors that cause us to like someone? Why do we like some people but not others?

It is well known that physically attractive individuals have a definite advantage over their less comely counterparts when it comes to social interaction. We tend to gravitate naturally toward the "beautiful people." What you may not know, however, is why we automatically respond more positively to good-looking people.

Decades of research show that we typically assign many favorable traits - such as intelligence, honesty, and kindness - to physically attractive individuals. We do this automatically, without being aware of it, because of a human tendency called "halo effect." A halo effect occurs when one positive or favorable characteristic (like beauty) of a person influences how the individual is viewed in other areas. If you are good-looking, then we assume that you must have many other positive traits.

It is clear that we have underestimated the extent to which physical attractiveness affects our decisions. The evidence indicates that attractive individuals are more likely to get our votes, to receive better treatment in the legal system, to get help when they need it, and to be more persuasive in changing people's opinions.

There is no doubt that we like attractive people, even if we don't know anything else about them. And according to the liking principle, we tend to be more compliant with individuals we like. It's no wonder, then, that con men usually are handsome and con women are beautiful.

I Like You Because We're Alike

In addition to liking attractive people, we also tend to like individuals who are similar to us. Similarity can come in different forms - background, education, lifestyle, points of view, personality, and many other things.

Consequently, people can get us to comply with their requests if they simply appear to be like us in a variety of ways. For example, studies have shown that we are more likely to help people who dress like us. Other research has found that people are more likely to buy insurance from a salesperson who is similar to them in terms of age, politics, and even cigarette-smoking habits.

The evidence points to small similarities having a significant effect on our willingness to comply to people's requests. If you feel that someone is "just like you," then you will probably like that person and will be more likely to say "yes" to him/her in interpersonal, social, and business situations.

I Like You Because You Praise Me

Most of the time we believe it when someone compliments or praises us, even when the flattery is clearly false. And except for circumstances when our gullibility is being taxed and when we are absolutely certain that the sycophant is trying to manipulate us, we like the person who is handing out the compliments.

One study involved men who were told certain things by someone who needed a favor. Some men got only positive comments, some got only negative comments, and others got a mixture of positive and negative comments. The person providing only praise was liked best by the men, even though they knew that they were being manipulated and even though the positive comments were not accurate. It's clear that praise, even manipulative praise, works in getting us to like the flatterer.

Familiarity Engenders Liking . . . Sometimes

The evidence indicates that we like the things we are most familiar with. As a rule, we are more favorable toward things we have had contact with. For example, studies have shown that voters often choose a candidate simply because his/her name is familiar to us. Apparently, when we are making decisions we aren't aware that our attitude toward something has been affected by how much we have been exposed to it.

Familiarity produced by contact doesn't always lead to greater liking, as illustrated by the effects of school desegregation on race relations. We often see a worsening of hostilities when children of different racial groups are thrown together to compete in classrooms.

But when team-oriented learning is used, studies show that contact plus cooperation increases the chances that children of different racial groups will begin to like each other. As it turns out, if people are given the opportunity to view each other as allies instead of opponents (i.e., in situations involving teamwork to meet group objectives), the "liking process" is activated.

It's no wonder, then, that compliance professionals often try to give us the impression that they are our teammates who are working with us to achieve the same goals. You are probably familiar with car salespeople who go to battle with his/her boss to get you the best deal. And the "good cop / bad cop" ploy of police interrogators is another good example of staging cooperation to get compliance, in this case from a suspected criminal.

Innocent or Guilty by Association

Have you ever felt angry or hostile toward someone giving you some unpleasant news? Imperial messengers of old Persia were killed if they relayed news of military disaster. Today we understand this phenomenon. Studies have repeatedly shown that we have a natural tendency to dislike anyone who brings bad news, even if they did not cause it.

Sometimes people blame the weatherman for reporting bad weather, but weathermen are also patted on the back when the weather is sunny and pleasant. This principle of association governs both negative and positive connections: if we are connected to something seen as "good," people will tend to like us, but if we are connected to something perceived as "bad," we will probably be disliked.

Compliance practitioners understand this principle of association and do everything possible to connect themselves or their products with things we like. Unbelievable as it may seem, good-looking female models actually help to sell cars. Products are not only tied to attractive people, but also to cultural rages (e.g., U.S. space program, Olympics), celebrities, and athletes. The connection doesn't even have to be logical one to work effectively.

Studies have shown that individuals become fonder of people, products, and ideas while they are eating. That is why food is commonly served at political and charitable fundraising events. Through a process of raw association, pleasant feelings can be artificially attached to anything (e.g., political statements, causes, products) closely associated with good food.

Sports and the Association Principle

Most people naturally understand the association principle, even though they aren't always aware of how it operates in daily life. Take, for example, how individuals connect themselves to home sports teams. The feelings fans have for their teams are often intense and personal.

Isaac Asimov explained why sports fans tend to be so passionate by stating, "All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality . . . and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you; and when he wins, you win."

According to the association principle, a winning sports team proves our own superiority. By linking ourselves to success in an artificial way (i.e., simply by living in a particular city or attending a particular school), we feel that we look good to others. In fact, studies have indicated that we purposefully manipulate the visibility of our connections with winners. People are more likely to wear t-shirts and sweatshirts displaying the name of their football team following a game in which the team won. On the other hand, we try to distance ourselves from teams on a losing streak.

We use the principle of association in all aspects of our lives to make ourselves look better in the eyes of others. And we do this simply because we want people to like us more.

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