Do opposites attract?
A new study in social psychology argues that relationships -be they romantic or platonic- start up due to similarities between people but that over time these similarities play less and less of a role in maintaining and developing the relationship.
The study, published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, juxtaposed two different schools of thought on how we form relationship bonds in the first place and why personal similarities in character traits, attitudes and interests are so central to the vast majority of close relationships.
One of these schools says that people are markedly influenced by their surroundings such that over the course of a relationship we become more and more like our friends and lovers and that similarities only broaden and deepen the bond as time goes by. The contrasting theory maintains that people are not so impressionable and malleable, that we start out by looking to find environments and relationships that match our needs, essentially constructing our own niches and then picking friends and lovers with similar traits to fill them.
Which theory is more correct? The niche construction theory, so say this study’s researchers. Reseachers polled 1,523 pairs of people off the street (from acquaintances to long-time couples) to learn about their respective relationships and to find out how similar the two people were in terms of traits, attitudes, values and prejudices.
It turned out that the level of similarity was remarkably consistent across all types of relationships, whether the pair had known each other for decades or had just met last week, whether they were star-crossed lovers or not much more than casual acquaintances. What this showed was that the similarities were there from the get go – we choose people because they’re similar, we don’t become more similar to them over time.
“With 86% of variables showing significant levels of similarity, we must conclude that relationships are formed, in part, by the selection of partners who share important attitudes, values, prejudices, activities, and some personality traits,” say the study’s authors.
The researchers further argue that while similarities are all-important during the initial setup of a relationship, on their own these similarities won’t tell you whether your relationship is going to last through the ages or fizzle out within a week or two. “If similarity matters only near the beginning of relationships, then similarity should be a poor predictor of long-term relationship satisfaction,” say the study’s authors. In fact, other elements such as self-disclosure, reciprocity and the development of trust are usually seen as key markers of a good long-term relationship.
It’s likely that these findings will not be appreciated by those in the online dating business, since as the research has shown, most dating sites rely almost exclusively on the principle of similarity to create their matches – you type in your likes, dislikes, interests and beliefs and the company’s algorithm churns out the new love of your life, mostly due to the number of similar likes, dislikes and so on you might have with that person. Ah, ain’t love grand!