There are few, if any, academic studies which disprove the similar-to-me effect. However, some argue that this cognitive bias is not problematic, but useful. A common positive example of the similar-to-me effect is women helping to empower other women. Women continue to face various inequalities in society, one of which is workplace representation. Therefore, a female manager might purposefully decide to hire another woman to try and right this wrong. They could even become their mentor and help them navigate a male-dominated industry. Since the two women share the same gender and the unjust societal treatment that comes along with it, they can better understand and support one another. It can sometimes be necessary to protect our own, suggesting the similar-to-me effect can have positive connotations depending on the situation.
While the similar-to-me effect sometimes leads to unfair hiring practices, it can also be beneficial to hire someone with a similar personality to you. If you thrive in your work environment, it is likely someone similar to you will as well. Similarities can increase trust, which can be highly beneficial to building an effective workplace environment. Various studies have shown that the greater level of trust between superiors and subordinates, the more productive and satisfied employees are. According to the Leader-Member Exchange theory, managers will give employees in their in-group greater responsibility and set high expectations of them, which leads to personal and professional growth.
The similar-to-me effect can be used to our advantage. Knowing that people show favoritism to those similar to them, relating to people’s interests can help us build trust. For example, if you want to build trust during an interview, try to discuss a shared hobby. According to famous negotiator Chris Voss, mirroring – the art of insinuating similarity – can help create a bond that can be beneficial during negotiations.
Associating with a familiar group has also been shown to lead to greater life satisfaction thanks to increased solidarity. Extensive research shows that we receive the greatest support from people who belong to groups we identify with, which suggests we should return the favor by helping those that are similar to us.10 We might think of various minorities banding together to support each other against racial discrimination.
It is clear that the similar-to-me effect leads to a mixed bag of results. On the one hand, it can lead to solidarity, on the other, it can lead to discrimination. Research shows that the advantages and disadvantages of the similar-to-me effect largely depend on whether it solely leads to positive attitudes towards an in-group, or if it extends beyond that and begins to impact the way that we treat people in an out-group.
Job Satisfaction & The Similar-To-Me Effect
Extensive research has shown that employee satisfaction affects the efficiency and performance of an organization. Happy employees lead to a happy boss because productivity levels increase in a positive work environment.
One factor which can contribute to job satisfaction is whether managers experience the similar-to-me effect with their employees. Typically, managers tend to hire people who exhibit similar biographical and attitudinal characteristics to themselves. However, once a manager leaves, those similarities may not be shared between employees and the new manager. Although hiring similar people has advantages, it can also lead to managers overlooking important factors like experience, hard work, and diversity, which all positively contribute to productivity. As there seem to be both advantages and disadvantages to the similar-to-me effect in the workplace, researchers Ardashir Zahed and Farzad Ardabili examined how it impacted job satisfaction.11
To do this, the researchers gave out surveys to 88 employees in a public organization in Iran. The goal of the surveys was to examine how the similar-to-me effect influenced job satisfaction and organizational trust. Zahed and Ardabili found that employees felt pressured to demonstrate similarities to their superiors, which caused stress, tension, and perceived inequality, all of which led to job dissatisfaction. They found that managers tended to promote employees they have the most in common with, which led to organizational mistrust amongst the other employees who felt that their managers weren’t capable of making the most optimal decision. 11
Shared Knowledge and the Similar-To-Me Effect
We often assume, due to the similar-to-me effect, a manager gives an employee a high evaluation because they feel more comfortable with them and trust them more. While liking an individual because they are similar is one potential reason for unfair employee treatment or evaluation, it could also be because managers have greater knowledge about people who excel in the same areas that they do.
Professor of economics Manuel Bagues and his colleague Maria J. Perez-Villadoniga found that superiors tend to give higher valuations to candidates who excel in the same areas as they do. Being knowledgeable about their own skills and areas of expertise, the superior has more readily available information to assess the candidate. For example, consider if a chemical engineer is evaluating two subordinates’ performance in their specialized field: one whose speciality is also chemical engineering and another whose speciality is mechanical engineering. The supervisor would know far more about chemical engineering, and would therefore be able to easily identify if the chemical engineering subordinate is performing well, but they would be less knowledgeable about how well the mechanical engineer is performing.12