There are some human experiences that we fancy as too ethereal to study, like falling in love.
But when you think about it, poets, playwrights, musicians, philosophers and others have been ruminating for centuries on the psychological experience of attraction. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that in the past several decades behavioral scientists have joined the mix. And some of what science has to tell us is at odds with our intuitions about love and attraction.
Consider the role of similarity. As the old saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. But we’re also quite fond of the notion that opposites attract. So which one is it?
According to the data, more often than not, similarity rules the day. Sure, you have your sporadic James Carville-Mary Matalin pairings with a huge divergence in political ideology. And all of us know a couple in which the two individuals come from very different backgrounds, are of very different ages, or have very different interpersonal styles. Shoot, my marriage consists of a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan, which in New England qualifies as an interfaith household.
But for the most part, we spend time among similar others and are drawn to people who are like us. Hardly an earthshattering conclusion (or topic for a blog post), right? Perhaps. But what is surprising is just how far-reaching these effects of similarity can be.
In fact, as I sat reading over lunch this month’s issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin — I know, I know, it’s a glamorous life — within a 10-minute span I came across two separate demonstrations of how powerful similarity can be. Even when we don’t realize it. And even when we simply think about similarity in superficial, physical terms.
The first paper, authored by researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, examined how physical similarity predicts seating choices. It’s a question that you sometimes hear asked with regard to race, as in “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”. Never mind that the white kids do, too, but we don’t seem nearly as concerned about it. It turns out that we gravitate toward similar others even on dimensions much less central to our identity than, say, ethnicity.
For example, in their first study, the Canadian researchers analyzed the seating arrangement of college students in a library computer lab.
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