A new study on how we seek similarity in relationships, co-authored by researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas, upends the idea that “opposites attract,” instead suggesting we’re drawn to people who are like-minded.
The analysis’s most surprising discovery is that people in relationships do not change each other over time. Instead, the study puts new emphasis on the first moments of a relationship–disclosing that future friends or partners are already similar at the beginning of their societal connection, a major new finding, say the writers.
‘Picture two strangers striking up a conversation on a plane, or a couple on a blind date,’ said lead author Angela Bahns, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wellesley College in Boston.
‘From the very first moments of awkward banter, how similar the two people are is immediately and powerfully playing a role in future interactions,’ she said.
Whether or not a relationship develops could depend on the degree of similarity the two individuals share from the start of their meeting. “You attempt to make a social world where you are comfortable, where you succeed, where you have people you can trust and with whom you may collaborate to fulfill your aims,” Crandall said. “To create this, likeness is very helpful, and individuals are drawn to it most of the time.”
To collect the data, the researchers asked questions about attitudes, values, prejudices, character characteristics and behaviors which were significant to them, and approached pairs of people socializing in public, whether amorous couples, friends or acquaintances.
The results were compared to see how similar or different the pairs were.
They tested whether pairs who’d known each other longer and whose relationships were more intimate and closer were more similar than just formed pairs. It tuned out they weren’t.
The researchers also surveyed pairs who had just met, then approached the same pairs later, allowing them to paint a picture of the exact same pairs with time.
‘Though the idea that partners influence each other is central in relationships research, we have identified a large domain in which friends show very little change– personality, attitudes and values, and a selection of socially-relevant behaviors,’ said Bahns.
And it’s not just limited to a couple of particular topics. ‘People are more similar than chance on almost everything we measure, and they are especially similar on the things that matter most to them personally,’ Bahns said.
‘We’re arguing that selecting similar others as relationship partners is extremely common so common and so widespread on so many dimensions that it could be described as a psychological default,’ explains Bahns.
‘To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that social influence doesn’t happen in relationships; however, there’s little room for influence to occur when partners are similar at the outset of relationships.’
The pair think that our drive to select like-minded partners could be much stronger than previously assumed.
Professor Wendy Berry Mendes from the University of California-San Francisco said the study was ‘the largest field study on friendship formation that I know of.’
‘The authors provide convincing data that friendships are driven more by pre-existing similarity between friends rather than friends becoming more similar over time due to influencing each other,’ she said.
‘[This research offers] one of the most definitive accounts showing that not only do ‘birds of a feather flock together’ but goes one step further to show that ‘birds of a feather find each other before flocking.”