Did you ever wonder why some people have such insight into the behavior and feelings of others? Certainly, some of the great advertising execs, copywriters, and other pros seem to have it, particularly for certain groups or markets. But are these insights always accurate? It could be these individuals are projecting their own values and feelings onto other people to produce this apparent window into their emotions. Researchers have found that if you know a little about someone, and find that person similar to yourself in some way, your brain behaves very differently if you are asked about the emotional responses of that person:

Scientists from Harvard University and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland say the reason is that nerve cells, which fire during self-evaluation, also swing into action when people are asked to predict how another person might feel – if, that is, they believe the person would act similarly to them. If, however, they are convinced their peers are not of a same mind, so to speak, those neurons remain inactive…

Cells in the targeted brain regions fired when researchers asked subjects about their own views; they would also activate if such questions were followed by queries about the character with whom the volunteer most identified. There was not, however, any activity when subjects were queried about the dissimilar characters. The results, “certainly suggest that for people we perceive to be similar to us,” [Harvard's Adrianna] Jenkins says, “we are sort of automatically bestowing upon them the rich complement of [our own] characteristics.” [From Scientific American - Politically Correct: Why Great (and Not So Great) Minds Think Alike by Nikhil Swaminathan.]

This could partly explain the affinity of voters for politicians who seem similar to themselves. A few months ago I heard an NPR interview with a black woman torn between voting for a female (Hillary Clinton) or a black (Barack Obama). My first reaction was that both were rather poor criteria – why not pick the best leader, the most experienced, the most inspiring, etc.? Perhaps, though, her dilemma was partly based on a seemingly shared emotional understanding of both candidates based on the characteristics she shared with each.

It might also explain the racial divide on the guilt of O. J. Simpson. Blacks were far more likely to consider OJ innocent than whites, despite an apparent mountain of forensic evidence suggesting his involvement; this research suggests that the blacks who had sympathy for OJ might have been projecting their own positive beliefs onto OJ. I.e., “I’d never stab two people, and I doubt if OJ would either.”

While the way our mind works may help us “understand” someone else particularly well, is that understanding real and accurate? The research shows that the smallest shared characteristic lets us create a rich understanding of the other person; unfortunately, that understanding may be entirely off the mark. Ultimately, the neuromarketing insight here is that we should use caution in our own predictions of the feelings of others, as well as in the predictions made by others.

In particular, marketers who rely on the guidance and opinions of individuals with similar characteristics to the target market should realize this similarity is a two-edged sword. While there’s no doubt that having a shared experience or background with members of the target market can yield important insights, that similarity may also lead to overconfidence in predicting their emotions and behavior.