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Which factors drive interpersonal attraction?

Social psychologists have long noticed that, many times, some of the most meaningful human relationships grow from the briefest of connections, involving for instance whether another person likes or dislikes the same thing that we do, such as a music band or a snack. This phenomenon – characterized by the fact that we generally tend to like people who are like us – is known as the “similarity-attraction effect.” 

To test the conditions that shape whether we feel attracted to – or turned off by each other – researchers from Boston University (BU) conducted a series of experiments, and discovered that a crucial factor behind the similarity-attraction effect was what psychologists call “self-essentialist reasoning,” where people believe they have a deep inner core or essence shaping who they are. 

Thus, when people think that an essence drives their interests, likes, and dislikes, they usually assume the same for others and, if they find someone with as little as one – often minor – interest, they reason that person will share their broader worldview too.

“If we had to come up with an image of our sense of self, it would be this nugget, an almost magical core inside that emanates out and causes what we can see and observe about people and ourselves,” explained study lead author Charles Chu, an assistant professor of Management and Organizations at BU. 

“We argue that believing people have an underlying essence allows us to assume or infer that when we see someone who shares a single characteristic, they must share my entire deeply rooted essence, as well.”

To come to this conclusion, Chu devised four experiments. In the first one, participants were told about a fictional person, Jaime, who held either complementary or contradictory attitudes to them on topics such as abortion, capital punishment, animal testing, gun ownership, and physician-assisted suicide. 

After being asked to describe their sense of identity to measure their affinity with self-essentialist reasoning, participants had to state how they felt about Jaime. The experiment revealed that the more a participant believed their worldview was shaped by an essential core, the more connected they felt with the Jaime who shared their views on a specific issue.

In a second experiment, the scientists assessed whether this effect persisted when the target topics were less substantial. To test this, they asked participants to estimate the number of blue dots on a page and categorized them – along with the fictional Jaime – as either under- or over-estimators. Even in the case of such a slim connection, those who believed they had an inner core felt closer to the Jaime who was similar to them. 

“I found that both with pretty meaningful dimensions of similarity as well as with arbitrary, minimal similarities, people who are higher in their belief that they have an essence are more likely to be attracted to these similar others as opposed to dissimilar others,” Chu reported.

Finally, in other two experiments, the researchers attempted to disrupt the influence of self-essentialist reasoning, by either telling participants that attributes such as liking a paining were either essential or nonessential, or by trying to convince them that using their essence to judge others could lead to inaccurate results.

“It breaks this essentialist reasoning process, it cuts off people’s ability to assume that what they’re seeing is reflective of a deeper similarity. One way I did that was to remind people that this dimension of similarity is actually not connected or related to your essence at all; the other way was by telling people that using their essence as a way to understand other people is not very effective,” Chu explained.

These attempts to disrupt self-essentialist reasoning emerged from Chu’s conviction that embracing an indefinable, fundamental similarity with someone based on a small number of shared interests may be inherently flawed, and could restrict who we can form meaningful connections with.

“When you hear a single fact or opinion being expressed that you either agree or disagree with, it really warrants taking an additional breath and just slowing down. Not taking that single piece of information and extrapolating on it, using this type of thinking to go to the very end, that this person is fundamentally good and like me or fundamentally bad and not like me,” he argued.

Since self-essentialist reasoning often structures how people behave with one other in a variety of social spheres, such as the business world, politics, or even the way society distributes resources – with some people receiving funding, for instance, based not on their merits, but on the similarity-attraction effect – Chu advocates a more balanced approach to others that takes into account their complexity.

“There are ways for us to go through life and meet other people, and form impressions of other people, without constantly referencing ourselves. If we’re constantly going around trying to figure out, who’s like me, who’s not like me?, that’s not always the most productive way of trying to form impressions of other people. People are a lot more complex than we give them credit for,” he concluded.

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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