Do You Want Super-Engaged Trainees? Use Online 'Helpers' That Look (and Talk) Like Them

It's why birds of a feather flock together -- and why people are more likely to bond with others who match their physical appearance. We tend to trust people who look like us. A new study takes a look at this phenomenon in online training -- suggesting that electronic "helpers" and avatars common in many training courses best look, talk (and dress) like a composite version of your training audience.avatar

"We know from existing research on human interaction that we like people who are like us," says Lori Foster Thompson, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-author of the study. "We wanted to see whether that held true for these training agents." It did.

Researchers studied the similarities between 257 study participants and the "helper agents" in an online training course. They took into account basic traits such as gender and race as well as subtler attributes, like communication style, of both the helper and the participant. Communication style was determined by presenting participants with various scenarios and asking how they would respond. Participants were also asked how closely they believed their helper's communication style mirrored their own.

As expected, participants paired with a helper that mirrored their race, gender and communication style were more engaged and focused on their training. They also reported generally liking their helper more. Though surface qualities were a significant indicator of likability, researchers also observed that perception played an important role:  Participants matched with a helper they believed shared their communication style viewed the training more favorably, regardless of whether it was true.

According to Thompson, "We found that people liked the helper more, were more engaged and viewed the program more favorably when they perceived the helper agent as having a feedback style similar to their own - regardless of whether that was actually true."

The full version of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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