Folk wisdom (and even some contemporary research) presents a mixed picture about who we end up finding attractive and compatible as a romantic partner. Do we prefer people who are similar and familiar to us for dates, mates, and spouses—or those who are a bit aloof, mysterious, and different? Do birds of a feather flock together, or does familiarity really breed contempt?
In past articles, I have explored various preferences and trade-offs people make when choosing a partner. I have also highlighted research that suggests picking a conscientious and dependable partner may make for a better relationship. Nevertheless, at times, a potential love interest playing hard-to-get can also be quite attractive. Yet, we also seem to fall in love with those who are similar, so that we can have fair and balanced relationships.
Given all that, when you are looking for love (or managing your existing relationship), should you be the dependable and similar partner—or the hard-to-get and mysterious lover? To answer that question, I went back to the research…
Research on Similarity and Familiarity in Relationships
The first article I uncovered that offered some clues was a meta-analysis by Montoya, Horton, and Kirchner (2008), which reviewed 313 previous studies on the effect of similarity on attraction. Primarily, the review and analysis was interested in exploring whether individuals truly found similar others as more attractive—and whether that similarity had to be verified (actual similarity), or simply be their own guess and perception that the other person was similar (perceived similarity). The authors were also interested in whether these effects of actual and perceived similarity might be different at various stages of a relationship (e.g. before meeting someone, after a short interaction, and in existing relationships).
The results of the meta-analysis indicated that both actual similarity and perceived similarity had a large effect on attraction overall. In other words, when participants in research studies had actual things in common with partners and were more similar to them, they found that partner more attractive. Also, when participants simply thought that a partner was similar to them (even when they were wrong), they found that partner more attractive too.
The effects of actual and perceived similarity on attraction also changed, depending on the stage of the relationship. Actual points of similarity made a potential partner more attractive before a first meeting, but had less of an impact on attraction as relationships developed. The mere perception of being similar with a partner (again, even if that was wrong) had an effect on attraction throughout the development of the relationship though. Overall then, to be more attractive, a partner just had to be perceived as similar—even in instances where that similarity was not actually supported with facts.
Personally, I found these results a bit counter-intuitive. So, I kept digging for more information and came up with an article by Norton, Frost, and Ariely (2007). In this article, the authors presented a series of six studies looking at the effects of ambiguity and familiarity on liking partners. Essentially, the authors wanted to know whether participants tended to like potential partners more (or less) the more that they got to know them.
In the first couple of studies, Norton, Frost, and Ariely (2007) asked participants for their opinions on this effect. Results indicated that participants believed they would like partners more when they knew them better—and actually had more information about them. In the next study, however, the team actually tested those beliefs. Specifically, they provided participants with personality profiles of other people (describing either 4, 6, 8, or 10 traits) and asked them to rate how much they liked that person. In contrast with participants’ beliefs in earlier studies, those who were actually provided with more information about another person tended to like them less.
Trying to make sense of this effect, Norton, Frost, and Ariely (2007) conducted three more studies, involving various amounts of information provided to participants in trait profiles of others. In these studies, the level of similarity/dissimilarity was also measured between the participant and profile of the other person (how many/few traits they had in common). In the first of those studies, results indicated that more information about a person led to decreased liking, mainly due to the fact that more dissimilarities became evident as more partner traits were known (and not matched by participants). In the next study, results showed that as information about dissimilarities grew, those dissimilarities negatively influenced the evaluation of future information about the person too. Finally, in the last study, Norton, Frost, and Ariely (2007) explored these effects in an actual online dating website. There as well, as participants became more familiar with dating partners, they found more dissimilarities and liked them less.
Taken together, these two studies present an interesting picture:
- For partners to be attractive, it is important that they are “perceived” as similar by their date or mate.
- As people get to know each other, if those perceptions are confirmed with information, then all is well.
- If people find dissimilarities instead, however, they tend to focus on them—which sours the relationship.
- Therefore, those partners who stay attractive in the long run are those who are perceived as similar (and actually have some real connections), yet are also a bit ambiguous to support that (sometimes false) perception of similarity, especially in areas where they do not really match up.
Being Perceived as Similar, Likeable, and Attractive
Given the above research, the ultimate ideal is to actually have a lot of similarities in common with a partner. That way, even as you get to know each other better, you will still find more points of connection than disagreement. As you date and relate then, this similarity can help you both fit well into the role requirements you each may have for a partner. Also, similarity can help you both meet each other’s needs and get what you want too.
If you find yourself with someone you like (or love) and you do not have everything in common, however, then never fear. Especially if those different traits or opinions are not central to your life and beliefs, then simply be a bit ambiguous and mysterious—while focusing on the more positive connections. Essentially then, even when long-time partners don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, they can still maintain harmony through such a perception of similarity.
Some skills that help to maintain that perception of similarity are:
By enjoying and accentuating actual points of similarity, and learning to manage areas of disconnect and disagreement, you can be more attractive and likable to your partner—and them to you too!
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© 2017 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
~ Albert Einstein