Michael Vick’s birthday is in 2 days (June 26th). If you’re like a lot of people, he’s probably not your favorite character, but if your birthday is June 26th and you’re hearing this news, you might end up ignoring some of Vick’s less pleasant attributes. The reason why is what some social psychologists have called “boosting.”
Managing Our Self-Image
In general, we want to see ourselves positively, so we do all sorts of things to remind ourselves and others that we’re okay. This can include relatively direct attempts at image management like selectively telling people about our strengths and giving nonsense job interview answers about our “weaknesses” (which come out sounding an awful lot like strengths).
Self-image management can also happen more indirectly, though. Instead of making a big deal about how great we are, we make a big deal about great things related to us are.
For instance, it just so happens that I grew up in the same town that produced American Idol winner, Lee DeWyze. I never met the guy, but do I tell people that we grew up in the same town? Of course I do! I get to enjoy the self-image boost from being associated with a semi-famous musician. What’s more, I probably think more highly of him as a person just because we share this meaningless connection.
But what if I came from the same town as Justin Bieber (someone who I think we can agree isn’t someone you necessarily want to be associated with)? Would I think more highly of him just because we share a hometown, even if we didn’t live there at the same time? Probably, actually.
Lifting Other People Up to Feel Okay About Ourselves
According to John Finch and Robert Cialdini, “boosting” is what happens when you find out you share a personal connection to another person who isn’t so great; you convince yourself that he or she isn’t that bad. This even happens when the thing that connects you is utterly meaningless, like sharing a birthday.
In Finch and Cialdini’s study, they gave a bunch of participants a 3-page biography of Griogori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk of Russia.” As the authors note, the biography “described Rasputin in the same unfavorable terms that history records.” When they finished the biography, the participants simply rated how good, effective, pleasant, and strong they thought Rasputin was.
Half of the participants, though, got Rasputin’s biography with a simple cover sheet. The cover sheet simply displayed Rasputin’s name and date of birth. The sneaky bit is that the researchers fudged Rasputin’s birthday to match the participant’s.
So everyone gets a description of a much vilified historical figure, but half of them think they have the same birthday he did. Could something that simple bias their evaluation of him?
On all four measures, people boosted their opinion of Rasputin if they though they shared a birthday with him.
Once again, the idea behind all of this is that we want to be connected to well-regarded others. Knowing that I share a birthday with a negative person can make me feel a little worse about myself, and I can’t change my birthday, so I might as well change my opinion of the other person to bring things back into balance.
Feature image: Kiwi Morado via Flickr