When it comes to the world of professional golf, for a long time South Korea was not really on the map. However, after South Korean golfer Se Ri Pak won the LPGA Championship in 1998, the number of South Koreans on the LPGA tour multiplied. This is not a coincidence.

When people find a similarity – even a trivial one – to a successful person, it increases their confidence in their own chances of success and motivates them to try harder. In this case, South Korean golfers were inspired by their compatriot’s success. This phenomenon is called motivation by association.

This effect follows from the fundamental human desire to belong, which makes us identify with people even if there is just a random similarity between them and us.

This was illustrated by an experiment where undergraduates had to work on unsolvable math puzzles. Before the task though, the students had to read a report written by a fictional but supposedly successful mathematics graduate. When the graduate’s birthday on the report was tweaked so that it matched the birthday of the student reading it, it resulted in those students persevering on the puzzle some 65% longer than their peers. This trivial similarity was enough to make them believe in their mathematical abilities more and try harder.

Other trivial things can spark our motivation too, and they need not be similarities to successful people. Many highly successful people have, in retrospect, found that a trivial incident ignited their desire to excel – for example, an insult or a seemingly meaningless assignment.

For professional football player Mia Hamm, that incident came when her coach told her that she had to mentally “switch on” her motivation to strive for the top every day, and demonstrated this point by turning off a light switch in the room.