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The impact of role models on young people

The importance of role models is widely accepted, but concerns about the influence of celebrity role models can distract attention from the evidence about the role models named most frequently by young people. Several studies this year have pointed our team towards the power of role models: this brief literature review is the result, shared here as a work in progress. We conclude that introducing learners to credible and apparently similar role models has great potential promise when planning learning for young people and for adults.

Defining role models

Role models provide learning and inspiration which helps individuals to define themselves, according to Gibson (2003). Individuals choose their role models and the qualities which they wish to emulate, so role models are distinct from mentors (who may be allocated) and models of behaviour promoted by organisations. Individuals judge themselves against the standards role models set, and seek to become more similar (or different) to them. Gibson categorises role models along four axes:

Positive individuals emulate the role model Negative individuals avoid being like the role model
Global individuals admire all qualities of the role model Specific individuals admire specific qualities of the role model
Close individuals learn about specific tasks from close role models Distant individuals admire the conduct of distant heroes
Up Individuals’ role models are in superior positions Across / Down individuals’ role models are in equal or junior positions

Role models from any point on each axis may be powerful.


Parents and family members seem to be most influential, followed by other known adults, with celebrities coming last. Our own studies in areas across England and Wales have repeatedly found that parents and family members are named most frequently. Studying 384 young people across a range of English schools, Kniveton (2004) found parents the key influence on young people, ranked significantly above teachers and careers teachers. Anderson and Cavallaro (2002) conducted a careful analysis of a limited group of 8-13 year olds in the USA. They found that young people tended to choose role models who they knew personally (parents came first).


A role model must be ‘available’ – salient and relevant to the individual – but they can be distant, such as a fictional or historical character, according to Gibson. Psychology emphasises the power of similarity: Heffernan (2011) cites eye-catching studies showing that there are a disproportionate number of ‘Georges’ living in Georgia, of dentists whose name begins ‘D’ and of donations to hurricane relief funds by people whose first initial matches that of the hurricane. In short, as Gehlbach et al. (2015) put it:

“Numerous basic social psychological texts underscore some version of the basic message that “likeness begets liking” (Myers, 2015, p. 330). Similarity along various dimensions (style of dress, background, interests, personality traits, hobbies, attitudes, etc.) connects to a wide array of relationship-related outcomes (such as attraction, liking, compliance, and prosocial behavior) in scores of studies (Cialdini, 2009; Montoya, Horton, & Kirchner, 2008).”

Anderson and Cavallaro found that boys were more likely to choose male role models, and African-American and white children were more likely to choose heroes of their own race. The authors suggested that a lack of available role models (on television, for example), meant girls, and Asian-American and Latino children were more likely to choose role models who differed from them.

Gehlbach and colleagues put the power of similarity to the test in a Randomised-Controlled Trial, asking teachers and students to complete questionnaires and highlighting five similarities between them among the treatment group. The trial increased perceived similarity among teachers and students, and increased teacher liking of students (but not vice versa) and saw an increase in grades among the treatment group. The effects appear to have been concentrated potently among African-American and Latino students, with whom teachers reported interacting more.

The impact of role models

A Randomised Controlled Trial by the Behavioural Insights Team in 2015 sought to increase student intention to attend university. Providing information to parents had little effect and reduced students’ intention to attend (through providing a more realistic picture of the cost). By contrast, a short talk from a graduate from the area proved highly effective in increasing interest and reported likelihood of attending university.

In an elegant recent paper, Burgess (2016) found that Michelle Obama’s interaction with students at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School (including her visit to the school, meeting students in Oxford and inviting a group to the White House) appear to have caused a significant jump in results relative to the rest of London schools, particularly between 2011 and 2012, during which results lifted by over half a standard deviation. These findings held true for a range of GCSE measures.

Conclusion and recommendations

Increasingly, our own research has pointed to the importance of role models. Studies in Blackpool and East Leeds highlighted the influence of relatives as role models on young people. The literature on higher education access highlights the value of ‘hot’ knowledge – delivered through first-hand experience and social networks – over ‘cold’ knowledge from distant and official channels (Baars et al., 2016). These findings imply that the absence of role models of educational success may affect the choices of young people growing up in some communities. Interviews with Teach First ambassadors highlighted the impact which exposure to role models had on their development, raising the possibility of applying these ideas to teaching and leadership development too.

Role models appear to have an important part to play in encouraging, inspiring and guiding people’s choices and development. Young people will choose role models themselves, preferring role models who seem similar to them. For those working in education, finding ways to introduce young people to a wider range of role models is worth exploring.

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