Newswise — Occasionally, the most significant bonds in life arise from the shortest encounters. For instance, at a gathering, encountering someone wearing a T-shirt from your beloved band, or someone who shares your sense of humor and enjoys the same unpopular snack as you (which you assumed only you liked). Such a minor shared interest initiates a dialogue that evolves into a long-lasting fondness.
The phenomenon of liking people who are similar to us is known as the similarity-attraction effect. A recent study by a researcher at Boston University has revealed a potential explanation for this tendency.
Charles Chu, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, conducted several studies to explore the factors that influence our attraction to or repulsion from others. The research focused on self-essentialist reasoning, which involves the belief that individuals have a deep, inner core or essence that determines their preferences, interests, and values. Chu's findings suggest that individuals who adhere to this view tend to assume that others share the same essence as themselves, and they use shared interests to infer broader similarities in worldview. The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association.
Chu, who co-authored the paper with Brian S. Lowery of Stanford Graduate School of Business, suggests that the self-essentialist view imagines the self as a core nugget, a nearly mystical center that radiates outward, shaping our perceptions of ourselves and others. "We contend that assuming the existence of an underlying essence in people enables us to make inferences about others based on a single shared characteristic, leading us to assume that they share our entire essential core," Chu explains.
Although the similarity-attraction effect can cause us to seek out connections with those who share our interests, Chu's research suggests that relying too heavily on this tendency may be problematic and limit our potential for meaningful relationships. Additionally, the push to avoid those who do not share our interests, even in small ways, can act as a counterbalance to the similarity-attraction effect. Disliking someone because they like a politician, band, book, or TV show that we despise can create a barrier to connection.
Chu emphasizes the complexity of human beings and the challenges of understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. He notes that individuals often use their own sense of self to fill in the gaps in their knowledge about others, which can lead to unfounded assumptions. Chu's research highlights the need to recognize and challenge these assumptions to avoid limiting our potential for meaningful connections with others.
Trying to Understand Other People
Chu conducted four studies to investigate the reasons why we are drawn to certain individuals and repelled by others. Each study was designed to uncover various factors that influence our formation of friendships and antipathies.
In the initial study, participants were presented with a fictional character named Jamie who held either complementary or contradictory attitudes to the participants' own views. Chu first asked the participants to state their opinions on one of five contentious issues, such as abortion, capital punishment, gun ownership, animal testing, and physician-assisted suicide. Then, participants were asked to indicate their feelings towards Jamie, who agreed or disagreed with them on the issue. Additionally, the participants' affinity with self-essentialist reasoning was evaluated by asking them about their roots of identity.
Chu's research revealed that participants who subscribed to the notion of a self-essentialist core felt a stronger connection with Jamie when they shared the same views on a particular topic. In other words, participants who believed in a fundamental core that determined their values and beliefs were more likely to connect with others who shared those values and beliefs, even if they only had one issue in common.
In the second study, Chu sought to determine whether the effect of self-essentialist reasoning remained consistent when the topics under consideration were less substantive. Rather than focusing on contentious issues like abortion, participants were asked to estimate the number of blue dots on a page and categorize themselves and Jamie as either over- or under-estimators. Despite the trivial nature of the connection, the results showed that participants who believed in a self-essentialist core felt a stronger connection to Jamie as a fellow over- or under-estimator.
Chu's findings indicated that individuals who believed in an essential core were more likely to feel attracted to others who shared even the most minimal similarities, as opposed to those who held opposing views or values. According to Chu, these results held true for both substantial and trivial dimensions of similarity.
To disrupt the process of attraction, Chu conducted two companion studies that aimed to remove the influence of self-essentialist reasoning. In one study, he categorized attributes, such as liking a particular painting, as either essential or nonessential. In another study, he informed participants that relying on their essence to assess others could result in an incorrect evaluation of other people.
Chu found that disrupting the self-essentialist reasoning process reduced the strength of the similarity-attraction effect. When participants were told that the similarity they shared with a person was nonessential, they were less likely to feel attracted to that person, even if they shared the same interest or opinion. Similarly, when participants were told that using their essence to judge others was not effective, they were less likely to assume that someone who shared one interest also shared their broader worldview.
Negotiating Psychology—and Politics—at Work
Chu's research suggests that the assumption that one or two shared interests automatically equates to a deeper similarity can be flawed, as it may restrict who we find a connection with. On the other hand, seeking out people who share our interests and views can be a useful psychological strategy to find a sense of community and connect with others. The tension lies in finding a balance between these two approaches, where we remain open to differences and don't rely solely on superficial similarities to form connections.
"When encountering a single fact or opinion that aligns or clashes with our own, it's important to pause and reflect," he advises. "Avoid the tendency to use this information as the sole basis for extrapolating a person's fundamental goodness or badness, and whether they are similar or dissimilar to ourselves."
Chu, who has a mixed background in organizational behavior and psychology, teaches negotiation classes at Questrom and believes that his research has numerous implications in the business world, particularly when it comes to deal-making.
Chu describes negotiations as discussions revolving around the distribution of power and resources among individuals. He raises important questions about the perceptions people hold of others during these discussions, such as how they view agreement versus disagreement and how they interpret outcomes where one party receives more or less. These are critical factors that influence the negotiation process.
However, with political polarization permeating almost every aspect of our lives, including the workplace, Chu’s research has implications far beyond just business negotiations. The assessments we make about one another affect how we manage employees, collaborate on projects, and form teams. Chu suggests that self-essentialist reasoning may even impact how society distributes resources, such as who we consider deserving of support and who gets funding, as it is based on the belief that individuals' outcomes are determined by something fundamental within them. This is why he emphasizes the need to pause before judging someone who may initially appear dissimilar.
Chu suggests that we can form impressions of others without always referencing ourselves. He believes that constantly trying to find similarities or differences based on our own beliefs is not the most effective way to understand others. People are much more complex than we often assume, and we should take the time to appreciate and learn about those complexities.