‘Oh would some power the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us!’

Of all the famous lines that flowed from eighteenth century Scottish poet Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns’ quill, perhaps the one above still has the most resonance. I for one haven’t worn a kilt since catching site of myself in the wing mirror of a Ford Zephyr in 1974.  I just don’t have the knees.

According to Estonian psychologist Juri Allik, we all still crave the gift to see ourselves as others see us. What’s more, his research into the subject has turned up some interesting results about how closely our own perception of ourselves matches that of our friends and loved ones.

Allik and his researchers conducted personality tests on people from Europe, the USA, Japan and India. Each participant was asked to fill out a ‘personality questionnaire’ about themselves whilst someone who knew them well did likewise. Five different personality traits were considered: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and willingness to try new experiences.

Even across the different cultures, the results were remarkably similar. People were generally perceived by those closest to them as being less neurotic than they themselves thought. This suggests we appear less anxious, depressed or self-conscious than we feel. Also, people were generally rated as more conscientious and having greater competence and self-discipline than they gave themselves credit for. On the subject of extroversion and agreeableness, people were in general agreement. But generally speaking, people were rated as less open to experience, new ideas and values, than they thought. This perceived lack of adventure even extended to our fantasies, which is a real eye opener given that you can’t be prosecuted.

Here’s the paradox. We know that most people consider themselves to be above average when compared to others. But clearly we can’t all be right. However, unlike most of our comparisons which are against strangers, Allik’s study consisted of friends and family. Perhaps these results suggest our loved ones have a natural positive bias towards us which leads them to rate us higher than a stranger on socially desirable personality traits. Who knows? Well, if anyone should, they should.

The bottom line is that, on average, our friends and loved ones have much the same view of our personality as we do. Perhaps we are a little pessimistic on neuroticism and conscientiousness, maybe a little optimistic on our desire for new experiences. But heave a sigh of relief. They see the real you.

Just keep that fantasy under wraps.

And does how well somebody knows you affect your ability to influence them?

Well, it’s much easier to persuade family or friends to do something than it is a complete stranger.
There’s an unspoken commitment to helping people we know.
But perhaps more interestingly, in business, there’s even a propensity to help people we’ve only just met if we discover that we have something in common.
For example, we’ve all got talking to a stranger in a bar about, say, sport and discovered we favour the same team. Within minutes there’s a bond.

The question is, how much does someone have to like us before we can start to influence their behaviour? Well, the answer comes from a study by Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University. This one doesn’t just use the usual sleight of hand but is also admirably sneaky too. In the experimental set-up, 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.
The idea, they were told, was that they would swap and compare their list of adjectives with that of another participant. However, unbeknown to them, the list that they were given from the so-called ‘other’ participant had been manipulated. By using what psychologists rather imaginatively call the ‘mere similarity’ effect, participants were given lists that either closely matched or varied greatly with their own.
Some had ticked only three adjectives the same as the ‘other’ person and so the perception was that they had very little in common. Some had selected ten of the same adjectives and so were considered to be neutral. But then there was a small group who believed that the other person had chosen seventeen adjectives that they themselves had selected. On the face of it, they had a lot in common with the ‘other’ person thanks to the researchers manipulating the results. But would it make them more likely to do something for that other person? After all, we know from basic psychology that people like people who are like themselves.

The second part of the experiment provided the results.

The participants were then introduced to the person with whom they had swapped lists. Or so they were told. Naturally, this ‘other’ person was a member of the research team. After a brief chat, came the moment of truth. The researcher, in passing, asked the participant if they would do them a favour. They asked them if they would mind reading an 8-page essay and then provide a page of feedback? Naturally, not many people would be keen to do this rather onerous chore for someone they had only just met. Yet 77% of those who had selected 17 out of 20 adjectives the same, obliged. One even offered to clip the person’s toe nails and perform a back wax.

Only kidding.

Of those whose results made them appear to be dissimilar to the other person, only 43% said yes to providing the feedback. Fewer still say they would be happy to trim body hair of any sort.
Just kidding again.

So, what have we learned? Well, it seems that fleeting attraction and perceived similarity can be remarkably powerful in changing ‘no’ into ‘yes’. Whilst relatively small requests are processed in an automatic way using simple rules-of-thumb, when it comes to considering the same request from a stranger, we make a snap judgement based on trivial information and how much we like them.

If we feel they are ‘like us’ we also think we ‘belong’ to a group of like minded people with the same values and beliefs.
So the next time you need a favour from a perfect stranger, be sure to point out the similarities between you before you ask. I do it on trains all the time. It really does work.