Behavioral Sciences Aug 16, 2012

I Love It! It Reminds Me of Me

"Incidental similarity" helps explain how we subliminally choose jobs, home towns and politicians. Can it also be used to help patients choose better health?

We’ve all heard of people who look like their spouses, or their dogs. Researchers have shown that we respond better to requests from people who share a name or a birthday.

But it appears that our attraction to things that are like us – called “incidental similarity” – is much more subtle and pervasive. It can even affect our careers.

There are lots of reasons to pick one job over another – pay, benefits, location, hours. But matching the name of the company to your initials shouldn’t be high on the list. And yet that’s just what Belgian researchers have found. Although the effect is small, over a large enough population it makes a difference. Beyond what could be accounted for by mere chance – more than 12,000 Belgians work where their last name and the name of the company for which they work start with the same letter.

We saw the power of this effect at Express Scripts: people whose first or last names started with the letter “B” had a greater response to our “best buy” message than expected by chance alone. And this boost in response – which involved changing medications – was more than doubled among those people whose first and last names both started with the letter B.

This phenomenon has been documented repeatedly: we’re more likely to donate to hurricane relief if we share a first initial with the name of the hurricane, and more likely to vote for political candidates that look like us. Graduate students were even more compliant to requests from individuals who they believed shared a fingerprint pattern.

Where we live, what we do, and who we do it for all are affected by our names: dentistry has more than its fair share of men named Dennis, and Florida more women named Florence.

Clearly, communications are more effective when they mirror something of their recipient. Insights like this fuel Express Scripts’ application of behavioral sciences to healthcare. In the Lab, as we continue to learn more about human behavior and decision making, we are able to design choices and systems that make it easier for patients to choose better health.

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