Creating birds of similar feathers: How emphasizing similarities can improve matches

Editors note: This study has important implications for mentoring and other PYD studies. The simple act of emphasizing similarities improves relationships and leads to better outcomes. This should be a routine part of describing the “why” behind matches, for both mentors and mentees. 

Gehlbach, H., Brinkworth, M., King, A. M. , Hsu, L. M., McIntyre, J., & Rogers, T., (2016). Journal of Educational PsychologyCreating Birds of Similar Feathers: Leveraging Similarity to Improve Teacher–Student Relationships and Academic Outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology 

Summary: Reprinted from Abstract When people perceive themselves as similar to others, greater liking and closer relationships typically result. In the first randomized field experiment that leverages actual similarities to improve real-world relationships, we examined the affiliations between 315 9th grade students and their 25 teachers. Students in the treatment condition received feedback on 5 similarities that they shared with their teachers; each teacher received parallel feedback regarding about half of his or her 9th grade students. Five weeks after our intervention, those in the treatment conditions perceived greater similarity with their counterparts. Furthermore, when teachers received feedback about their similarities with specific students, they perceived better relationships with those students, and those students earned higher course grades. Exploratory analyses suggest that these effects are concentrated within relationships between teachers and their “underserved” students. This brief intervention appears to close the achievement gap at this school by over 60%.

Implications: Reprinted from conclusions

Our study builds on the robust social psychological research showing that similarity fosters liking and more positive relationships. By experimentally manipulating teachers’ and students’ perceptions of actual similarities, our study allows for causal inferences  to be made about the effects of similarity on real-world, ongoing relationships.

If this approach of connecting students and teachers fosters more positive TSRs [teacher-student relationships]  (even if the effects are primarily teachers’ perceptions of their relationships with certain students), it represents a relatively quick and easy way to improve an important outcome.