A new study, considered to be the largest ever in its focus, shows that people who are similar tend to pair together and may have more successful relationships than those who live by the ‘opposites attract’ model.
A common saying when it comes to relationships is that opposites attract, but a new study shows that in truth, ‘birds of a feather flock together’ and it is actually our similarities that bind us.
"Picture two strangers striking up a conversation on a plane, or a couple on a blind date. From the very first moments of awkward banter, how similar the two people are is immediately and powerfully playing a role in future interactions,” Angela Bahns, an assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College and co-author of the study, said in a press release.
“Will they connect? Or walk away? Those early recognitions of similarity are really consequential in that decision," she said.
According to Wellesley College, Bahns and co-author Chris Crandall, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, the new study could lead to a fundamental change in understanding relationship formation and sounds a warning for the idea that couples can change each other over time.
The researchers place new emphasis on the earliest moments of a relationship — friendship.
"You try to create a social world where you're comfortable, where you succeed, where you have people you can trust and with whom you can cooperate to meet your goals," Crandall said. "To create this, similarity is very useful, and people are attracted to it most of the time."
The practice is so widespread and common the researchers refer to it as a “psychological default.”
"People are more similar than chance on almost everything we measure, and they are especially similar on the things that matter most to them personally," said Bahns.
The researchers acknowledge that social influence does occur in social relationships, but emphasized that their study shows there is little room for change when partners are similar at the outset of their relationships.
Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, professor Wendy Berry Mendes, of the University of California-San Francisco called the study, “one of the most definitive accounts showing that not only do 'birds of a feather flock together' but goes one step further to show that 'birds of a feather find each other before flocking.'"
According to Wellesley College, the study has major implications for how we grasp the foundations of relationships and approach relationships when the partners are different. Its findings were derived from a field-research method dubbed "free-range dyad harvesting," in which pairs of people interacting in public (romantic couples, friends, acquaintances) were asked questions about attitudes, values, prejudices, personality traits or behaviors that are important to them.
The data were compared to see how similar or different the pairs were, and to test whether pairs who had known each other longer and whose relationships were closer and more intimate were more similar than newly formed pairs. They were not. Additionally, the researchers surveyed pairs who had just met (in a college classroom setting), and then surveyed the same pairs later. This allowed the benefit of longitudinal data, painting a picture of the same pairs over time.
In a previous study, researchers found that friendships and meaningful relationships could be found among people who did not share as many similarities.
"At small colleges friends were less similar — but just as close and satisfied, and spent the same amount of time together,” said Crandall. “We know that people pick similar people at first, but if you go out of your way you can find excellent friends, and meaningful relationships, with people who are different."
But such dissimilar friends didn't necessarily blend their points-of-view over time, the study showed.
"Anything that disrupts the harmony of the relationship — such as areas of disagreement, especially on attitudes, values, or preferences that are important — is likely to persist," said Bahns.
She added this could be a "cautionary message" for those who think they can change their friends or romantic partners: "Change is difficult and unlikely; it's easier to select people who are compatible with your needs and goals from the beginning."