It is widely known in psychology that similarities attract individuals in interpersonal relationships and love. We feel attracted to others with whom we share similar personality traits, interests, values, and other personal attributes. even minimal similarities, if they are essential, can lead to interpersonal attraction.

People Tend to Be Prone to Overgeneralization

However, this interpersonal attraction due to similarities may stem not from real similarities but rather from our overgeneralized beliefs that such observed personal similarities indicate our deeper and more fundamental similarities with another person.

Charles Chu, an assistant professor at Boston University, recently conducted a study showing how our perceptions of similarities prompt our false beliefs about having deeper similarities with the person.

As the author said,

“Our attraction to people who share our attributes is aided by the belief that those shared attributes are driven by something deep within us: one’s essence.”

More concretely, Charles Chu continues:

“To put it concretely, we like someone who agrees with us on a political issue, shares our music preferences, or simply laughs at the same thing as us not purely because of those similarities, but because those similarities suggest something more—this person is, in essence, like me, and as such, they share my views of the world at large.”

What Is “Psychological Essentialism”?

According to the author, “psychological essentialism,” specifically applied to people’s ideas about the self and individual identity, is what motivates this way of thinking. People have a tendency to “essentialize” many things in their perceptions of others. This seems to be a psychological phenomenon present across all human cultures.

Charles Chu defines “psychological essentialism” this way:

“To essentialize something is to define it by a set of deeply rooted and unchanging properties, or an essence.”

“For example, the category of ‘wolf’ is defined by a wolf essence, residing in all wolves, from which stems attributes such as their pointy noses, sharp teeth and fluffy tails as well as their pack nature and aggressiveness. It is unchanging in that a wolf raised by sheep is still a wolf and will eventually develop wolf-like attributes.”

Charles Chu explains that researchers have recently started to concentrate on the category of the self in terms of “psychological essentialism.” They found that we tend to essentialize the self in the same way that we essentialize other categories in our perception.

“To essentialize me is to define who I am by a set of entrenched and unchanging properties, and we all, especially in Western societies, do this to some extent. A self-essentialist then would believe that what others can see about us and the way we behave are caused by such an unchanging essence,”

Charles Chu said.

New Experiments on Self-Essentialism and Interpersonal Attraction

Researchers conduct studies to better understand how self-essentialism drives interpersonal attraction. Let us review a series of four experiments recently reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

First Experiment

In the first experiment, researchers asked participants their opinions on one of five randomly selected social issues: gun ownership, the death penalty, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, or animal testing. The other half of the participants read about someone who disagreed with their position, while the other half read about someone who shared their position. Then all participants answered questions about their general beliefs about self-essentialism. They also rated their level of interpersonal attraction to the fictitious person and how much they thought they shared a general worldview with that person.

The participants who were high in self-essentialism more frequently reported that they had a similar general perception of reality as the fictitious person who agreed with them. The participants also express attraction to them.

Second Experiment

In the second experiment, similar to the first one, researchers found the same results, further supporting their theory of self-essentialism. This time, researchers asked about another shared attribute: the participants’ propensity to overestimate or underestimate the number of colored dots on a series of computer slides.

In this case, the belief in an “essential self” made participants think that a single aspect of similarity implied that both the participant and another person see the world similarly. This, in turn, led to a higher attraction to that person.

Third Experiment

In a third experiment, researchers showed participants eight pairs of paintings and asked them to select their favorite from each pair. Some participants were fans of the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, while others were fans of the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky.

Then researchers informed half of each fan group that their artistic preference was intrinsic to their identity. Researchers informed the other half of participants that there was no correlation between their artistic preference and their identity.

Researchers then exposed the participants to two fictitious individuals. One of them shared their artistic preference, and the other did not.

Researchers found in this experiment that those whom they told that artistic preference was related to their essence were significantly more likely to express attraction to a hypothetical person with the same artistic preferences.

Fourth Experiment

In the fourth experiment, researchers classified participants as fans of one of the two artists. Then they gave them information about whether or not using one’s own essence was useful in perceiving other people.

In this experiment, researchers told one-third of the participants that essentialist thinking may result in inaccurate perceptions of others. Researchers told another third of the participants that essentialist thinking may result in accurate perceptions of others. They didn’t provide any information to the remaining third of participants.

Here are the striking results of the study: Participants, who were informed that essentialist thinking could result in accurate assessments of other people, believed that they shared a similar taste in art with them. They also felt attracted to these fictitious people.

What the Study Concluded about Interpersonal Attraction

The most surprising finding of the study was that something as simple as a shared appreciation of an artist could make people believe that other people would have similar worldviews. However, the author advised that self-essentialist thinking might not always be beneficial. Regarding this finding, Charles Chu noted that,

“I think any time when we’re making quick judgments or first impressions with very little information, we are likely to be affected by self-essentialist reasoning.”

“People are so much more complex than we often give them credit for, and we should be wary of the unwarranted assumptions we make based on this type of thinking.”

Thus, one can see that Self-Essentialist Reasoning Underlies the Similarity-Attraction Effect in interpersonal perception and attraction.


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