Even the shortest relationship can sometimes lead to the deepest bond of a lifetime. Like when you go to a party and run into someone wearing your favorite band’s t-shirt, or who laughs at the same jokes as you, or who enjoys (or thinks you do) the oddball meal alone. What I love is when a conversation starts with a small, shared interest that develops into a lasting love. We prefer people like us; This phenomenon is known as the similarity-attraction effect. New research from Boston University has now discovered one reason.
Charles Chu, assistant professor of management and organization at the BU Questrom School of Business, has studied the factors that influence how attracted or turned off we are to one another in several studies. He found that self-essentialist thinking, where people believe they have a deep inner core or essence that defines who they are, was a major determinant. Chu found that when someone believes that an essence drives their interests, likes, and dislikes, they infer that the same is true for others. If they find someone with similar interests, they hope that person will share their larger worldview. The conclusion of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association has been published.
“If we had to come up with an image of our sense of self, it would be this nugget, the almost magical core inside that emerges and what we can see and observe about people and ourselves,” Chu says. Paper with Brian S. Lowery of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “We argue that believing people have an underlying essence allows us to infer or infer that when we see someone who shares a single characteristic, they must share my entire deep-rooted essence.”
But Chu’s research suggests that this rush to embrace an undefined, basic similarity to someone because of a shared interest or two may be based on flawed thinking—and may restrict who we seek relationships with. Working alongside the pull of the similarity-attraction effect is the countering push: We dislike those who are not like us, often because of one small thing—they like that politician, band, book, or TV show we hate. .
“We’re all very complicated,” Chu says. “But we have complete insight into our own thoughts and feelings, and the minds of others are often a mystery to us. What this work suggests is that we often fill in the blanks of other people’s minds with our own feelings, and this can sometimes lead us to make some unwarranted assumptions.” Trying to understand other people To examine why we’re attracted to some people and not others, Chu set up four studies, each designed to tease out different aspects of how we make friends—or enemies.
In the first study, participants were told about a fictional person, Jamie, who held complementary or contradictory attitudes toward them. After asking participants their opinions on one of the five topics—abortion, the death penalty, gun ownership, animal testing, and physician-assisted suicide—Chu asked them how they felt about Jamie, who agreed or disagreed with them on the target issue. They were asked questions about the roots of their identity to measure their affinity with the self-essentialist argument.
Chu found that the more participants believed that their view of the world was shaped by an essential core, the more they felt connected to Jamie who shared their views on an issue.
In a second study, he looked at whether that effect persisted when the target subjects were less important. Rather than asking whether people agreed with Jamie on something as divisive as abortion, Chu asked participants to guess the number of blue dots on a page, then classified them–and the fictional Jamie–as over- or under-estimators. Even with this slim connection, the findings held: The more someone believed in essential core, the more they perceived Jamie as a fellow over- or under-estimator.
“I found that along well-meaning dimensions of similarity, along with arbitrary, minimal similarities, individuals high in belief that they have substance were more likely to be attracted to these similar others as opposed to dissimilar others,” says ch.
In two companion studies, Chu began to disrupt this process of attraction, eliminating the effect of self-necessity reasoning. In one experiment, he labeled attributes (such as liking a certain picture) as necessary or unnecessary. In another, he told participants that using their essence to judge others could lead to false evaluations of others.
“It breaks this essential reasoning process, it cuts off people’s ability to assume that what they’re seeing is a reflection of a deeper similarity,” Chu says. “One way I did was to remind people that this dimension of equality is not really connected or related to your essence; another way was to tell people that using their essence to understand other people is not very effective.”
Negotiating psychology – and politics – is a major tension in his findings at WorkChu that shapes their application in the real world. On the one hand, we’re all looking for our community–those who share our hobbies and interests, like music and books like us, and don’t disagree with us on politics. “This kind of thinking is a really useful, heuristic psychological strategy,” Chu says. “It allows people to see more of themselves in new people and strangers.” But it also excludes people, and sets up divisions and boundaries–sometimes on the flimsiest of grounds.
“When you hear a single fact or opinion expressed that you agree or disagree with, it really warrants taking an extra breath and just slowing down,” he says. “It’s not necessarily taking that one piece of information and extrapolating on it, using this kind of thinking to come up with, this person is fundamentally good and like me or fundamentally bad and not like me.”
Chu, whose background combines the study of organizational behavior and psychology, teaches classes on negotiation at Questrom and says his research has many implications for the business world, especially when it comes to negotiating.
“I define negotiation as negotiation, and agreement and disagreement, about how power and resources should be shared between people,” he says. “What do we infer about other people having these conversations? How do we experience and think about agreement versus disagreement? How do we interpret when someone gets more and others less? These are all really central questions. The negotiation process.”
But at a time when political division has invaded nearly every area of our lives, including the workplace, the application of Chu’s findings goes beyond corporate horse trading. Personnel management, collaboration on projects, and team bonding–all are shaped by the decisions we make about each other. Self-essentialist reasoning can also affect the distribution of society’s resources, Chu says: Who we consider worthy of help, who gets funding and who doesn’t, “may be driven by the belief that people’s outcomes are caused by something inside them.” That’s why he judges someone. Advocates pushing the pause before, who, at first, doesn’t look like you, in fun.
“There are ways for us to go through life and meet other people, and make impressions of other people, without constantly referring to ourselves,” he says. “If we’re constantly trying to figure out, who’s like me, who’s not like me? That’s not always the most productive way of trying to form an impression of other people. People are much more complex than we give them credit for.”
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