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Mental Model: Bias from Liking/Loving

The decisions that we make are rarely impartial. Most of us already know that we prefer to take advice from people that we like. We also tend to more easily agree with opinions formed by people we like. This tendency to judge in favor of people and symbols we like is called the bias from liking or loving.

We are more likely to ignore faults and comply with wishes of our friends or lovers rather than random strangers. We favor people, products, and actions associated with our favorite celebrities. Sometimes we even distort facts to facilitate love. The influence that our friends, parents, lovers and idols exert on us can be enormous.

In general, this is a good thing, a bias that adds on balance rather than subtracts. It helps us form successful relationships, it helps us fall in love (and stay in love), it helps us form attachments with others that give us great happiness.

But we do want to be aware of where this tendency leads us awry.

For example, some people and companies have learnt to use this influence to their advantage.

In his bestseller on social psychology Influence, Robert Cialdini tells a story about the successful strategy of Tupperware, which at the time reported sales of over $2.5 million a day. As many of us know, the company for a long time sold its kitchenware at parties thrown by friends of the potential customers. At each party there was a Tupperware representative taking orders, but the hostess, the friend of the invitees, received a commission.

These potential customers are not blind to the incentives and social pressures involved. Some of them don’t mind it, others do, but all admit a certain degree of helplessness in their situation. Cialdini recalls a conversation with one of the frustrated guests:

It’s gotten to the point now where I hate to be invited to Tupperware parties. I’ve got all the containers I need; and if I wanted any more, I could buy another brand cheaper in the store. But when a friend calls up, I feel like I have to go. And when I get there, I feel like I have to buy something. What can I do? It’s for one of my friends.

We are more likely to buy in a familiar, friendly setting and under the obligation of friendship rather than from an unfamiliar store or a catalogue. We simply find it much harder to say “no” or disagree when it’s a friend. The possibility of ruining the friendship, or seeing our image altered in the eyes of someone we like, is a powerful motivator to comply.

The Tupperware example is a true “lollapalooza” in favor of manipulating people into buying things. Besides the liking tendency, there are several other factors at play: commitment/consistency bias, a bias from stress, an influence from authority, a reciprocation effect, and some direct incentives and disincentives, at least! (Lollapaloozas, something we’ll talk more about in the future, are when several powerful forces combine to create a non-linear outcome. A good way to think of this conceptually for now is that 1+1=3.)

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The liking tendency is so strong that it stretches beyond close friendships. It turns out we are also more likely to act in favor of certain types of strangers. Can you recall meeting someone with whom you hit it off instantly, where it almost seemed like you’d known them for years after a 20-minute conversation? Developing such an instant bond with a stranger may seem like a mythical process, but it rarely is. There are several tactics that can be used to make us like something, or someone, more than we otherwise would.

Appearance and the Halo Effect

We all like engaging in activities with beautiful people. This is part of an automatic bias that falls into a category called The Halo Effect.

The Halo Effect occurs when a specific, positive characteristic determines the way a person is viewed by others on other, unrelated traits. In the case of beauty, it’s been shown that we automatically assign favorable yet unrelated traits such as talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence, with those we find physically attractive.

For the most part, this attribution happens unnoticed. For example, attractive candidates received more than twice as many votes as unattractive candidates in the 1974 Canadian federal elections. Despite the ample evidence of predisposition towards handsome politicians, follow-up research demonstrated that nearly three-quarters of Canadians surveyed strongly denied the influence of physical appearance in their voting decisions.

The power of the Halo Effect is that it’s mostly happening beneath the level of consciousness.

“The power of the Halo Effect is that it's mostly happening beneath the level of consciousness.” Click To Tweet

Similar forces are at play when it comes to hiring decisions and pay. While employers deny that they are strongly influenced by looks, studies show otherwise.

In one study evaluating hiring decisions based on simulated interviews, the applicants’ grooming played a greater role in the outcome than job qualifications. Partly, this has a rational basis. We might assume that someone who shows up without the proper “look” for the job may be deficient in other areas. If they couldn’t shave and put a tie on, how are we to expect them to perform with customers? Partly, though, it’s happening subconsciously. Even if we never consciously say to ourselves that “Better grooming = better employee”, we tend to act that way in our hiring.

These effects go even beyond the hiring phase — attractive individuals in the US and Canada have been estimated to earn an average of 12-14 percent more than their unattractive coworkers. Whether this is due to liking bias or perhaps the increased self confidence that comes from above-average looks is hard to say.

Appearance is not the only quality that may skew our perceptions in favor of someone. The next one on the list is similarity.

Similarity

We like people who resemble us. Whether it’s appearance, opinions, lifestyle or background, we tend to favor people who on some dimension are most similar to ourselves.

A great example of similarity bias is the case of dress. Have you ever been at an event where you felt out of place because you were either overdressed or underdressed? The uneasy feelings are not caused only by your imagination. Numerous studies suggest that we are more likely to do favors, such as giving a dime or signing a petition, to someone who looks like us.

Similarity bias can extend to even such ambiguous traits as interests and background. Many salesmen are trained to look for similarities to produce a favorable and trustwothy image in the eyes of their potential customers. In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini explains:

If there is camping gear in the trunk, the salespeople might mention, later on, how they love to get away from the city whenever they can; if there are golf balls on the back seat, they might remark that they hope the rain will hold off until they can play the eighteen holes they scheduled for later in the day; if they notice that the car was purchased out of state, they might ask where a customer is from and report—with surprise—that they (or their spouse) were born there, too.

These are just a few of many examples which can be surprisingly effective in producing a sweet feeling of familiarity. Multiple studies illustrate the same pattern. We decide to fill out surveys from people with similar names, buy insurance from agents of similar age and smoking habits, and even decide that those who share our political views deserve their medical treatment sooner than the rest.

There is just one takeaway: even if the similarities are terribly superficial, we still may end up liking the other person more than we should.

Praise and Compliments

“And what will a man naturally come to like and love,
apart from his parent, spouse and child?
Well, he will like and love being liked and loved.”

— Charlie Munger

We are all phenomenal suckers for flattery. These are not my words, but words of Robert Cialdini and they ring a bell. Perhaps, more than anything else in this world we love to be loved and, consequently, we love those that love us.

“We love to be loved and, consequently, we love those that love us.” Click To Tweet

Consider the technique of Joe Girard, who has been continuously called the world’s “greatest car salesman” and has made it to the Guinness World Record book.

Each month Joe prints and sends over 13,000 holiday cards to his former customers.While the theme of the card varies depending on the season and celebration, the printed message always remains the same. On each of those cards Girard prints three simple words ”I like you” and his name. He explains:

“There’s nothing else on the card, nothin’ but my name. I’m just telling ’em that I like ’em.” “I like you.” It came in the mail every year, 12 times a year, like clockwork.

Joe understood a simple fact about humans – we love to be loved.

As numerous experiments show, regardless of whether the praise is deserved or not, we cannot help but develop warm feelings to those that provide it. Our reaction can be so automatic, that we develop liking even when the attempt to win our favor is an obvious one, as in the case of Joe.

Familiarity

In addition to liking those that like us and look like us, we also tend to like those who we know. That’s why repeated exposure can be a powerful tool in establishing liking.

There is a fun experiment you can do to understand the power of familiarity.

Take a picture of yourself and create a mirror image in one of the editing tools. Now with the two pictures at hand decide which one – the real or the mirror image you like better. Show the two pictures to a friend and ask her to choose the better one as well.

If you and your friend are like the group on whom this trick was tried, you should notice something odd. Your friend will prefer the true print, whereas you will think you look better on the mirror image. This is because you both prefer the faces you are used to. Your friend always sees you from her perspective, whereas you have learnt recognize and love your mirror image.

The effect of course extends beyond faces into places, names and even ideas.

For example, in elections we might prefer candidates whose names sound more familiar. The Ohio Attorney-General post was claimed by a man who, shortly before his candidacy, changed his last name to Brown – a family name of Ohio political tradition. Apart from his surname, there was little to nothing that separated him from other equally if not more capable candidates.

How could such a thing happen? The answer lies partly in the unconscious way that familiarity affects our liking. Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.

Loving by Association and Referral

Charisma or attraction are not prerequisites for liking — a mere association with someone you like or trust can be enough.

The bias from association shows itself in many other domains and is especially strong when we associate with the person we like the most — ourself. For example, the relationship between a sports fan and his local team can be highly personal even though the association is often based only on shared location. For the fan, however, the team is an important part of his self-identity. If the team or athlete wins, he wins as well, which is why sports can be so emotional. The most dedicated fans are ready to get into fights, burn cars or even kill to defend the honor of their team.

Such associated sense of pride and achievement is as true for celebrities as it is for sports. When Kevin Costner delivered his acceptance speech after winning the best picture award for Dances With Wolves, he said:

“While it may not be as important as the rest of the world situation, it will always be important to us. My family will never forget what happened here; my Native American brothers and sisters, especially the Lakota Sioux, will never forget, and the people I went to high school with will never forget.”

The interesting part of his words is the notion that his high school peers will remember, which is probably true. His former classmates are likely to tell people that they went to school with Costner, even though they themselves had no connection with the success of the movie.

Costner’s words illustrate that even a trivial association with success may reap benefits and breed confidence.

Who else do we like besides ourselves, celebrities and our sports teams?

People we’ve met through those who are close to us – our neighbors, friends and family. It is common sense that a referral from someone we trust is enough to trigger mild liking and favorable initial opinions.

There are a number of companies that use friend referral as a sales tactic. Network providers, insurers and other subscription services offer a number of benefits for those of us who give away our friends’ contact details.

The success of this method rests on the implicit idea that turning down the sales rep who says “your friend Jenny/Allan suggested I call you” feels nearly as bad as turning down Jenny or Allan themselves. This tactic, when well executed, leads to a never-ending chain of new customers.

Can We Avoid Liking?

Perhaps the right question to ask here is not “how can we avoid the bias from liking”, but when should we?

Someone who is conditioned to like the right people and pick their idols carefully can greatly benefit from these biases. Charlie Munger recalls that both he and Warren Buffett benefitted from liking admirable persons:

One common, beneficial example for us both was Warren’s uncle, Fred Buffett, who cheerfully did the endless grocery-store work that Warren and I ended up admiring from a safe distance. Even now, after I have known so many other people, I doubt if it is possible to be a nicer man than Fred Buffett was, and he changed me for the better.

The keywords here are “from a safe distance”.

If dealing with salesmen and others who clearly benefit from your liking, it might be a good idea to check whether you have been influenced. In these unclear cases Cialdini advises us to focus on our feelings rather than the other person’s actions that may produce liking. Ask yourself how much of what you feel is due to liking versus the actual facts of the situation.

The time to call out the defense is when we feel ourselves liking the practitioner more than we should under the circumstances, when we feel manipulated.

Once we have recognized that we like the requester more than we would expect under the given circumstances, we should take a step back and question ourselves. Are you doing the deal because you like someone or is it because it is indeed the best option out there?

Mental Model: Bias from Liking/Loving Click To Tweet

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Still Interested? Check out some other mental models and biases.