Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How to be your Parent’s Favourite Child

There is the age-old question of whether parents really have a favourite child or do they actually ‘love you all the same’. This is a conundrum which you can’t truly answer until you’re a parent yourself. Since being a parent is not in my immediate plans, I’m going to focus in the mean-time on how to be my parent’s favourite child.

How to do it:

1) Spend time with them
You can increase your chances of getting your parents to like you by spending time with them. This will increase their preference for you by becoming more familiar to them. There is research supporting this with, Moreland and Zajonc (1980) suggesting that participants had a preference for photos of other people they had already seen before. There is also research into the ‘mere exposure effect’. Zajonc (1980) found that images of random polygon targets for only a millisecond increased preference compared to similar distractor targets. Therefore, watch films with them, go shopping with them, cook dinner with them, but if it’s not possible to spend LOADS of time with your parents then make sure to pop your head in to say bye before you go out. This will keep the mere exposure effect working in your favour.

2) Be similar
People like individuals who are similar to them. This applies to your parents too - if you are more like them you will be preferred. You’ve already done this well if you were blessed with the genes to make you look similar to one of your parents. However, if you weren’t so lucky then having the same beliefs, values and attitudes as them will give you the upper hand over your siblings. Even dress the same as them if you have to! Moreland and Zajonc (1980) infers that people rating photos were more likely to give a higher rating if they perceived fictional paragraphs concerning the person to be more similar to themselves. Luckily Montoya, Horton and Kirchner (2008) suggest that it is only perceived similarity which leads to preference, not actual similarity. So, you don’t actually have to have similar qualities to your parents for them to prefer you, you just have to pretend you do!

Figure 1. shows that as participants became more familiar to the images, they regarded them as more likeable (attraction) and this lead to an increased belief that they were more similar to them (Moreland & Zajonc, 1980).

3) Be a suck-up
Wait until your sibling is being unbearable to your parents. They’re being rude, argumentative and generally unpleasant to be around. This is your opportunity to swoop in and be the angel. The contrast principle suggests that comparison will work in your favour (Cialdini, 2009). If you’re well-behaved and a delight to be around you will be favoured over your sibling who is exhibiting undesirable qualities.

4) Reinforce their behaviour
Positively reinforcing desired mannerisms has been seen in many studies to increase the incidence of the behaviour. A classic study of this is Pavlov (1927) who found that positively reinforcing dogs with food increased salivation. However, your parents are not dogs so food might not work as well. Miltenberger and Crosland (2014) state that positive reinforcement is one of the key mechanisms parents use to teach their children how they want them to behave. So, when your parents start showing the preference towards you this is your chance to maintain this behaviour. Give them hugs, tell them you love them and reap the rewards. If it works on children it will definitely work on your parents too, and besides they’ve probably used it on you in the past!

So, to recap, spend time with them, be like them and love them but most importantly don’t be a little brat – leave that to your sibling and you’ll definitely be the favourite.


Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: pearson new international edition. London: pearson education M. U. A.  

Miltenberger, R. G., & Crosland, K. A. (2014). Parenting. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Operant and Classical Conditioning, 509-531.

Montoya, R. M., Horton, R. S., & Kirchner, J. (2008). Is actual similarity necessary for attraction? A meta-analysis of actual and perceived similarity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships25, 889-922.

Moreland, R. L., & Zajonc, R. B. (1982). Exposure effects in person perception: Familiarity, similarity, and attraction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology18, 395-415.

Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes. London: oxford university press.

Zajonc, R. B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist, 35, 151- 175.

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