It’s easy to like someone simply because they’re into the same music as you are, or to hate a person because of their views on the shape of the Earth. According to new research, there’s a simple psychological mechanism behind this tendency to judge a person based on a single characteristic, highlighting how the rules of attraction are shaped by unfair assumptions.
While the old adage that opposites attract may apply to magnetic poles and electrostatic charges, human relationships are largely governed by the so-called similarity-attraction effect, whereby we tend to like people who are just like us. Thus, the way in which we define ourselves has a massive impact on the types of people we identify with.
According to the authors of the new study, our ability to conceptualize our identity relies on something called self-essentialist reasoning, whereby we imagine ourselves to possess some inner essence that determines who we are. “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 author Charles Chu, from Boston University, in a statement.
“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,” he says To test this assumption, the researchers recruited 2,290 people to take part in a series of experiments.
At the outset, participants completed a questionnaire designed to assess the strength of their self-essentialist reasoning. Following this, they were asked to reveal their feelings towards a fictional person called Jamie based on their views on abortion, capital punishment, and gun ownership.
As predicted, those with higher levels of self-essentialist reasoning were more likely to feel attracted to Jamie when they agreed with their own views.
In a second experiment, the researchers asked participants to estimate the number of dots on a screen, and then categorized them as either over- or under-estimators. Amazingly, results revealed that people with a stronger belief in their own essential core were more likely to feel positively about Jamie when told that they shared a tendency to over- or under-estimate.
“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,” said Chu.
The researchers then conducted two further experiments in which participants were explicitly told that people’s taste in art is not connected to their personality. Interestingly, this knowledge prevented participants from strongly identifying with others who shared their own artistic taste.
Conversely, those who were told that the opposite is true were more likely to feel positively towards those who liked the same paintings as them.
Summarizing their results, the study authors explain how self-essentialist reasoning causes us to “project many of our own attributes onto another person with whom we share a single attribute.”
“The warm feeling we get toward someone we just met who has something in common with us, that sense that this person is my kind of person and sees things as I do, is founded upon this belief and the reasoning process it enables,” they continue.
“On a good day, self-essentialist reasoning facilitates the uniquely human capacity for social connection by helping us see a bit more of ourselves in others,” conclude the researchers.
“On a bad one, this belief might enable the darker aspect of humanity to socially exclude by delineating the boundary between us and them.”
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.