Sunday, March 17, 2013

Concept of similarity in romantic attraction

Birds of a feather flock together.
—A proverb

The starling went to the raven, because it is of its kind.
—Baba Kama, The Mishna

Similarity or Complementarity?

Once upon a time, John met Jenny. They fell in love. They married, had children and presumably will live happily ever after. This is a common love story, and leads us to wonder why people become attracted to each other. Traditional research (Byrne) has shown that people are attracted to those immediately similar to them and this could lead to marriage. However, arguments for complementarity contend that opposites do indeed attract, and this attraction would also lead to long-term relationship and marriage. Such views are further reinforced by research like that of Shiota and Levenson, which suggest that complementary couples are more satisfied in the long run.

Whilst there are many theories given on the process of mate selection, of particular interest is the recent emergence of the popular notion that ‘opposites attract’. However, this idea is open to interpretation, because it is expected that if a couple is not alike, they would tend to have more conflict, which will reduce the quality of their relationship (Pieternel & Dick, 2008). Felmlee (2001) has shown that relationships developed from attraction based on complementarity often end prematurely. Nonetheless, there is also evidence supporting the complementary need theory (Winch, 1954), contending that for attraction and therefore a happy marriage, there must be potential gratification of needs for both John and Jenny. An example of such ‘need-gratification’ is when younger females tend to be more attracted to older males who are financially stable (Eagly & Wood, 1999, as cited in Pieternel & Dick, 2008).

Conversely, the contrasting thought to the concept of complementarity is the established theory of similarity; simply put, that ‘birds of a feather flock together’. According to Hill, Rubin and Peplau (1976), there is a tendency for people who are similar in “physical attractiveness, religion, education, age, and even height” to be attracted to each other. However, there has been suggested that such tendencies may not exist, due to invalid testing procedures. This thought is suggested by research showing only small degrees of similarity between spouses’ personality in marriage (Eysenck, 1990), and in some reported studies (Antill, 1983; Peterson et al., 1989) no degree of similarity was observed, because couples are paired on a random basis.

Today we will review the theory of similarity and its aspects

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Summary of Similarity Theory

Similarity theory suggests that we will be more romantically attracted to people who are similar to us in aspects like physical attractiveness, intelligence, socio-economic background, and overall attitude towards life. According to Byrne (1971), this can be explained through the theories of classical conditioning, and in particular, the idea of positive reinforcement. In a relationship consisting of two like-minded individuals, sharing the same viewpoint allows them to feel that their opinions are validated, and thereby their own confidence increases, enhancing the relationship.

However, there is a distinction between the perceived and actual similarity. Many have argued that actual similarity is not as important as perceived similarity. A suggestion for this is that the individual experiences the positive reinforcement; regardless of them believing that the similarity is there even though it is not (Montoya, Horton & Kirchner, 2008). However, a possible flaw in this is that if only one partner experiences such feeling of similarity whilst the other does not, then the attraction may not exist. Nonetheless, there is also contradicting evidence of people whose actual similarity is low, but are still highly attracted to another, which support the idea of ‘complementarity’ (Winch et al., 1954). This is important, as it reminds us that similarity is only a positive correlate to the process of attraction, and is not the absolute factor that determines the formation of a romantic relationship.

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Analysis of the romantic attraction interviews suggests that, in one-third of the cases, similarity played a role in the initial attraction. The similarity appeared in many different areas: family background, personality traits, appearance, ways of thinking, goals and interests, and leisure activities. People see the similarity as a positive factor that enhanced the original attraction and help facilitate the development of the relationship.

Studies on who falls in love with whom show a huge range of variables in which intimate partners are similar. These variables include: age, appearance, height, weight, eye color, behavior patterns, professional success, attitudes, opinions, intelligence, cognitive complexity, verbal ability, education, social and economic class, family background, number and sex of siblings, feelings toward the family of origin, the quality of the parents’ marriage, race and ethnic background, religious background, social and political affiliations, acceptance of sex-role stereotypes, physical and emotional health, emotional maturity, physical characteristics including physical defects, level of neuroticism, moodiness, depressive tendencies, a tendency to be a “lone wolf” or a “social animal,” as well as drinking and smoking habits.

The earliest statistical study that documented similarity between couples is the study done by the British, Victorian psychologist Sir Francis Galton (1884) toward the end of the nineteenth century. Galton, who developed the method of statistical correlation, found a significant correlation between husbands and wives not only in such obvious variables as age, race, religion, education, and social status, but also in physical and psychological traits such as height, eye color, and intelligence.

Over 100 years after Galton, studies have reached similar conclusions. One study, involving 1,499 American couples, showed that the couples were similar in a wide range of cognitive and personality traits (Phillips et al., 1988). Another study, using British couples, showed that the couples were similar in such diverse traits as intelligence, introversion, extroversion, and inconsistency (Taylor & Vandenberg, 1988).

The authors concluded that the similarity resulted from both physical proximity and personal preference. Which is to say that, among those who live in their neighborhoods, study in their schools, or work in their offices, people choose those who are similar to them in levels of intelligence and personality. Introverts choose introverts and extroverts prefer extroverts.

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People are more likely to choose, as a lover, someone who has similar traits than someone who has different traits. Furthermore, the more similar couples are in terms of personality, the more comfortable they are with each other. This is manifested in greater compatibility and greater satisfaction (Mehrabian, 1989).

Why does similarity enhance attraction and satisfaction in intimate relationships? One explanation suggests itself: similarities are generally rewarding whereas dissimilarities can be unpleasant. Consequently, couples who are similar in attitudes, temperament, and behavior are more likely to stay together over time (Hartfield & Rapson, 1992). Even those who build and organize their thoughts and perceptions in similar ways are more attracted to each other and find more enjoyment in each other’s company (Burleson et al., 1997; Neimeyer, 1984).

In addition, studies document similarity between couples in such physical features as height, size, and weight. Short men, it turns out, tend to marry short women and tall women tend to marry tall men. Fat men tend to marry fat women, and skinny women prefer skinny men. When the weights of 330 married couples were examined during four stages of their life cycle, it was discovered that even among young couples there was a similarity in the partners’ weights. This correlation probably reflects peoples original attraction to potential partners who are similar to themselves in physical appearance. It is less surprising that similarity was found in the couples’ weights at the age of retirement—the probable result of similar eating habits and similar life styles (Schafer & Keith, 1990).

Another fascinating topic is the similarity found in a couple’s mental health or illness. One of the studies that addressed this topic showed that husbands of schizophrenic women also tended to show symptoms of mental disturbance (Parnas, 1988). A study of people who suffer from depression revealed that in 41 percent of the cases, both parents suffered from a mental problem (Merikangas et al., 1988). Some evidence exists that moody people with depressive tendencies tend to be attracted to people who are similar to them in unhappiness. There is much stronger evidence that happy people are attracted to happy people. In all of these cases, it is clear that similarity in emotional makeup increases a couple’s attraction to each other (Lock & Horowitz, 1990).

When we consider the long and impressive list of variables in which a couple can express similarity, a question suggests itself. Are some similarities more important than others? Evolutionary psychologist David Buss (1985) looked at this question and says the answer is yes. Age, education, race, religion, and ethnic background account for the highest correlations between partners; they also have the greatest effect on a relationship. Next in order of size and importance are similarities in attitudes, opinions, mental ability, social and economic status, height, weight, eye color, behavior, personality, number of brothers and sisters, and a large number of physical characteristics.

These correlations suggest that when we are looking for marriage partners, we eliminate first those whom we perceive to be inappropriate in the most important ways. They are too old or too young—“I never thought about him in a romantic way, because he seemed too old for me.” They have too much or too little education—“I can’t talk about issues that come up in my work with a man who didn’t finish high-school and never reads.” Their skin color, ethnic background, and religious background are too different from our own—“I could never get seriously involved with a non-Jew.”

After passing the initial screening, people look at the other dimensions of potential mates. Here too, the greater the similarity the greater the chance that the person will pass the test successfully. In the second screening, we assess basic values, similar social and economic status, personality, and behaviors. It would be very difficult, for example, for a liberal democrat to continue dating a racist fascist even if attractive and otherwise appropriate.

It is possible that underneath all these similarities exists a more basic, more fundamental similarity in genetic makeup. Indeed, a number of studies done in the last decade show that people are able to identify, and prefer as romantic partners, people who are similar to them genetically (e.g., Rushton, 1988).

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Clearly, people tend to fall in love with, and choose as marriage partners, individuals who are similar to them. Fairy tales about great loves between Cinderella and the prince or between the beautiful call girl and the millionaire are very rare. This is probably why we enjoy hearing about them and seeing them in movies. In the original version of the movie Pretty Woman, the couple parted in the end. But at an early screening, viewers objected. They saw the story as a fairy tale and demanded an appropriate ending, which they got.

When such miracle romances do occur, they usually don’t lead to marriage. On the very rare occasions that they do, the marriages are characterized by a high number of conflicts. The greater the similarity between a couple, the greater their satisfaction from the relationship. People who come from similar cultural and social backgrounds have similar expectations and assumptions. This makes communication between them easier and prevents conflicts. They don’t need to discuss who does what and how, these things are mutually understood and accepted. Similarities in attitudes, interests, and personality also make communication easier; consequently, married couples who share these characteristics report greater happiness and satisfaction from their marriages (Caspi & Harbener, 1990).

So, when people have a choice, they seek people who are just like them. Psychologists call this the similarity-attraction effect (SAE) and it shows itself across many cultures. In the early 1990s the Chicago Sex Survey collected data to find out where and how Americans met their partners. It found that “people search for – or, in any case, find – partners they resemble and partners who are of comparable ‘quality’… the great majority of marriages exhibit homogamy on virtually all measured traits, ranging from age to education to ethnicity.”


Most researchers agree that attraction theory may be a substantial predictor of the potential attraction between two individuals by asserting that people are attracted to others who are similar to themselves. Consistent with this view, multiple studies have revealed that people prefer to affiliate with those who share similar attitudes, personalities, physical attributes, and a host of other characteristics compared to others who do not. Though similarity of attraction theory explains many cases of interpersonal attraction, it may not accurately predict all attraction outcomes. In some cases complementarity or avoidance of dissimilar others may better explain certain patterns of human liking.

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