The brain quirk that changes what (and who) you like cover image

The brain quirk that changes what (and who) you like

Dorian Minors • January 31, 2016

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Your brain will make you like other people more, even if you don't want to. You see, our brain likes to generate sweeping generalisations to free up computing space, even if it causes you problems. You make these generalisations about almost everything, subconsciously. And rather than break these generalisations, your brain will just do its darndest to slip new information into existing categories.

Why you'll secretly like some people more

No, it's not because they're really good looking (although, that's true too).

If someone asks you to do something and you agree, then your brain will automatically put that person into the category of 'people I do stuff for'. This is part of one of the most fundamental biases we experience in our day-to-day lives - confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency of our brain to justify everything in line with our expectations of the world. It does this to avoid 'cognitive dissonance', a tension created when our expectations don't match the reality. In this case, it tries to justify our actions by changing our perception of the person. So whether we liked that person before or not, chances are, we like them a little bit more now.

You'll agree to things you probably wouldn't have

The issue with this little shortcut our brain engages in is that once we've agreed to one thing, we're more likely to agree to other, bigger things. Since we've agreed to one request, our brain is susceptible to something called 'successive approximations' - similar requests (approximations) that take advantage of our brain's desperate attempts to remain consistent and avoid cognitive dissonance. This is known as the foot in the door technique when it's used as a persuasion tactic, so named for the door-to-door salesman who tend to use it to increase their sales (and why you're gambling when you let those lovely young Morman's have a cool drink on a hot day).

It'll change what you're interested in

This peculiar phenomenon doesn't just influence who you like; it can influence what you like. Say someone is asking for signatures on a petition. If you agree to sign it, you'll probably find later that you care more about that subject than before. Then you might find that you go on to donate to that cause. Yep, it's been found that when people sign a petition, their concern about a cause increases than those who don't and are more likely to respond to calls for donation later.

A technique to open even the most secure doors.

How likely are you to be affected?

Well, across 22 studies and about 1600 people, it looks like you're over four times more likely to keep helping someone out if you agree to their initial request. Now, I don't advocate for never helping people. But it certainly seems like it could get tiresome. Who knew that cheesy Dalai-Lama style advice was legit? All his supporters I guess.

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them. - Dalai Lama

You like helping people? Sure you do! So learn about the terrifying things everyone is capable of, and do your best not to do those terrible things. And if you don't maybe you should work out that empathy muscle - learn how, here. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.