Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on happiness and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.


 RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – From Stormtrooper to Chinese Red – Tesla trend setting?

Last week, I started to suddenly notice red Teslas everywhere.  Was there a recent surge in interest in this color?  For four years I drove a white Tesla which Scot Wingo says his team at Spiffy calls the “Stormtrooper” for its Star Wars look.  Then thanks to the buck that jumped into my passenger seat window to its demise three weeks ago, I was forced to say goodbye to my trusty white stormtrooper.

Since I had gone to so much trouble to have to replace my Tesla,  I decided to try something different and chose red, considered auspicious by my ancestry. Red is actually the least common Tesla, since it pops out and could attract police sirens.

Then why all of a sudden did I see red Teslas everywhere?

Before my white Tesla, I drove a white Prius.  And I saw lots of white Priuses everywhere.  Then I stopped seeing them when I started driving a Tesla…..and started seeing white Teslas everywhere.  True, white is the most popular color of Teslas, but why had I not seen the other colors?

Grace Ueng and her new Tesla

Clues from the MIT classroom

Last week I was also a guest speaker in Professor Dana White’s MIT Sloan’s 15.312 Organizational Processes class. The slides in her lecture entitled “bias toward similarity,” stood out to me.

She shared data that when attending a networking mixer, 95% of research subjects said their goal of attending was to meet new people. However, they end up 3x more likely to interact with someone they already knew.

Why do we, as humans, build networks based on self-similarity? (1) Perceived predictability (2) Comfort (3) Top of mind  (4) Self-affirmation.

Interactions at mixers are typically driven by history and self-similarity.

The importance of weak and dormant ties

However, research shows the power of weak and dormant ties in finding new jobs, providing valuable advice, and novel insights compared to strong and current ties. This is also related to the butterfly effect, the large effects of random perturbations – how a butterfly flapping its wings can create a powerful storm on the other side of the world.

Graphic courtesy of Grace Ueng

MIT Sloan 15.312 Lecture notes. Source: Levin, Walter, and Murnighan 2011

 The ability to “see” the noise

There is a concept in psychology called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the “frequency illusion.” which explains why once you purchase a new car you start seeing it everywhere. The idea is that there is an attentional ‘awakening’ to the object that now holds value to you.

So I didn’t set at new Tesla trend by buying a red one; more likely it became a salient image in my brain where once it was part of the noise.

We notice what is familiar, what is most like us, and that makes it hard for us to move toward the different “noise.”

Graphic courtesy of Grace Ueng

Similar-to-Me Effect’s impact on hiring / firing

This past week a client told me about how his CEO spoke ill of employees that were different from her. And I have worked with other clients where the CEOs favor people most like themselves. The “similar-to-me” effect is a cognitive bias that explains our tendency to prefer people that look and think like us. We have an affinity towards all things familiar to us, which is why the similar-to-me effect is also known as the affinity bias.

I’ve seen companies that hire for diversity and pride themselves on being inclusive.

Then, however, they manage internally for similarity.

The way we are wired makes us surround ourselves with people similar to ourselves. This is not unlike how the cars that pop out on the street are the ones just like the car we are driving…down to the color, beyond make and model.

We push these diverse talents we’ve worked so hard to recruit to then “fit in” to our culture and thus push for similarity.

With the “mini-me syndrome,” we connect to those similar to us more readily because we can see ourselves in that person, so it lends an aspect of trust, which makes us think they will succeed in a given task.

Conserving energy with categories

As with all biases, the main reason we rely on representativeness is because we have limited mental resources. Since we make thousands of daily decisions, our brains have been wired, from our early days, to conserve as much energy as possible, for survival.  This means we often rely on shortcuts to quickly judge the world around us.

Researchers at Penn State University conducted research into the similar-to-me effect and found that the effect can be triggered by a variety of factors from values, habits, and ideas to demographic variables such as age, race, and gender.

The similar-to-me effect reveals that we have unconscious biases that lead to differential treatment of others. We are quick to assess people based on stereotypes because we encounter so much information on a daily basis that we must rely on filtering rules to quickly process data in order to make decisions.

Feeling more connected to people that are similar to us can be harmless. However, favoritism for people like us can make it difficult to understand our differences. If we only surround ourselves with people that have similar opinions to our own, we are much more likely to fall victim to confirmation bias, leading to a narrow view of the world.

Research has shown that socially diverse groups are more innovative than homogenous groups. Anticipating alternative viewpoints and better preparing our own arguments contributes to progress.

Many leaders think they are embracing diversity, but when you look more deeply, how often in recruiting or evaluating someone’s performance, do you discount them if they do not excel in areas where you do?  Or are weak in areas that you deem important?

Do you see this phenomenon in your organization?

It is proven that diverse teams perform better. We can all mindfully create more inclusive environments for diverse talent to thrive and reach their best in their own terms.

 bout Grace Ueng

Grace is a strategy consultant,  leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth. Her company offers workshops to move teams forward: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn. Transformative companies hire Grace to deliver her HappinessWorks™ program to boost performance. Join her Happiness & Leadership community and learn to be a happier and better leader: click here