The science of attraction: Why do we fall for a particular person?

Attraction to people with similar interests may be influenced by judging others harshly.

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Life’s most significant profound partnerships can emerge from the shortest of ties, for example, when you go to a party and meet someone wearing your favorite band’s T-shirt, or who laughs at the same jokes as you, or who snatches that unpopular snack that you (or so you thought) adore alone. One little common interest initiates a conversation favorite! And grows into a long-lasting attachment.

The similarity-attraction effect is a phenomenon in which they prefer persons similar to us, even if the similarities are minor. Charles Chu, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Boston University, found that this phenomenon may be explained by self-essentialist reasoning, in which individuals believe their identity is influenced by a deep inner core or essence.

He showed that when people believe an essence drives their interests, likes, and dislikes, they presume the same is valid for others; if they find someone who shares one similar interest, they infer that person would share their broader worldview.

The researcher said, “If we had to create an image of our sense of self, it would be this nugget, an almost magical core inside that emanates and causes what we can see and observe about people and ourselves. 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 also share my entire deeply rooted essence.”

Chu’s research has numerous applications in business, ranging from staff management to deal negotiation. He investigated the factors influencing whether they are attracted to or turned off by each other. One crucial component was what psychologists call self-essentialist thinking, which occurs when people believe they have a deep inner core or essence that defines who they are. 

The findings were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association. Chu suggests that our eagerness to accept an indefinable, fundamental similarity with someone because of one or two shared hobbies may be incorrect thinking and that it may limit whom we interact with. Along with the pull of the similarity-attraction effect, there is a counter-push: they dislike others we don’t think are like us, typically for one tiny reason they like that politician, band, book, or TV show we despise.

Chu devised four tests to investigate why we are drawn to some people but not others. Each study was aimed to elicit distinct characteristics of how we become friends or foes. Participants in the first study were told about a fictional character, Jamie, who had complementary or conflicting attitudes toward them. Chu asked participants how they felt about Jamie, who agreed or disagreed with them on the target subject after asking them their opinions on one of five topics: abortion, capital punishment, gun ownership, animal testing, and physician-assisted suicide. They were also questioned about the origins of their identity to assess their proclivity for self-essentialist reasoning.

He discovered that the more participants believed their worldview was shaped by an essential core, the more connected they felt to Jamie, who shared their views on one issue. He investigated if that effect continued when the subject themes were less substantive in the second research. Even with this tenuous link, the outcomes were consistent: the more someone believed in a fundamental core, the more they felt connected to Jamie as a fellow over- or under-estimator.

He began troubling this attraction process in two parallel investigations by labeling qualities (such as enjoying a particular picture) as essential or nonessential. He warned participants that judging others based on their essence could lead to an incorrect appraisal of others.

He said, “It breaks this essentialist reasoning process; it cuts off people’s ability to assume that what they see reflects a deeper similarity. One way I did that was to remind people that this dimension of similarity is not connected or related to your essence at all.”

Another area where Chu’s research has consequences is negotiating psychology and politics at work. According to him, negotiations are dialogues, agreements, and debates over how power and resources should be distributed among people. In an era when political polarisation has permeated almost every aspect of our lives, including the workplace, Chu’s results have far-reaching implications.

Journal Reference:

  1. Charles Chu, Brian S. Lowery, et al. Self-Essentialist Reasoning Underlies the Similarity-Attraction Effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000425
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