We Love Those Who Are Similar to Us

“Similarity psychology” and positive assortative mating play an important role in love relationships. We like others who are not only beautiful but also similar to ourselves.

It seems natural to like and love those who are beautiful. Men and women tend to favor physically attractive men and women. When asked, they frequently express their preferences for good-looking prospective partners (Buss and others). Do they really choose those with attractive appearances for a relationship? Are men more likely to fall in love with beautiful women than women are to fall in love with handsome men?

Do We Love Others Who Are Beautiful or Similar to Us?

The puzzle remains: if beautiful women and men are so attractive, why don’t we fall in love with the most beautiful ones? Three explanations are possible.

  1. Men and women perceive them as beautiful yet unattainable. The anxiety of not being accepted by a beautiful person makes them cautious, even subconsciously, to avoid the frustration of implied and tacit rejection. This might work as a psychological defense mechanism.
  2. It is possible that we love someone for reasons other than their beauty. Beauty just adds to our admiration. However, causation can also work in the opposite way: we perceive our beloved as beautiful because we love him or her.
  3. People tend to prefer homogamy in relationships and similarity with another person in their physical appearance and other personal, social, and cultural features.

Let us consider how “similarity psychology” and positive assortative mating work in love relationships.

“Similarity Psychology” Attracts Us to Similar Men and Women

The early studies showed that partners in marriage were more likely to resemble each other than to differ in physical and psychological traits, even though those similarities and differences varied among social characteristics (Brockner & Swap, 1976; Burgess & Wallin, 1943).

The similarity in values, beliefs, attitudes, and personality traits also plays a role in the choice of a mating partner. Partners with similar attitudes, as well as those who see each other more frequently, are more attracted to each other in general (Aron et al., 1989; Byrne et al., 1971).

The studies in different cultures confirmed these tendencies.

In the 1990s, a large survey of the Spanish population showed that individuals are more likely to fall in love with potential partners who they view as similar to themselves in physical attractiveness (Yela & Sangrador, 2001).

Due to romantic idealization, they have a positive bias toward a partner and perceive him or her as a little more attractive than themselves. Over the course of a long-term relationship, habituation diminishes the value of the partner’s physical attractiveness. Over time, familiarity and cognitive dissonance counterbalance physical attractiveness. The role of these and other attributes increases.

How Positive Assortative Mating Works

There is strong evidence that people who prefer positive assortative mating choose to mate with those who are similar to themselves. This type of selection—also called homogamyis quite common in several individual characteristics.

Positive assortative mating also works with physical traits. For example, a person of short stature tends to mate with another person of similar height. This tendency of men and women to select mating partners with similar phenotypes motivates them to fall in love with those of similar physical appearance.

Many studies have demonstrated that individuals prefer relationships with others who have physical characteristics similar to themselves (e.g., Bereczkei et al., 2002; Zajonc et al., 1987).

Furthermore, individuals decide to initiate a dating relationship with those whose “social desirability” is similar to their own. They are associated with a lower likelihood of possible rejection (Berscheid et al., 1971).

Why Do Mates Look Alike?

Two effects can play roles in such preferences:

  • early childhood imprinting and
  • self-referent phenotype matching.

The relationship with caregivers during childhood plays a role. The early childhood imprinting of caregiving experiences can shape the expectations of desirable partners for mating (e.g., Bateson, 2004; Bereczkei et al, 2004).

Specifically, due to sexual imprinting, people see others they grew up with as sexually attractive. The opposite-sex caregiver’s phenotype can be used as a model for future mate preference. This can be a parent, stepparent, or other early caregiver with whom a child spends much of their time in the early years. For example, women tend to choose partners that resemble their adoptive fathers (Bereczkei et al., 2004).

Due to self-referential phenotype matching, an individual may prefer a person who resembles themselves. Or, alternatively, the homogamy can be due to the sexual imprinting of the parents in childhood. The results of the study demonstrated that a tendency to homogamy in facial characteristics between partners in a relationship really exists and occurs largely due to self-referent phenotype matching and, to some degree, due to sexual imprinting (Nojo et al., 2012).

Do Partners Become Alike Over the Course of a Relationship?

Since men and women prefer phenotypically similar mates, this leads to mating homogamy in physical traits between partners.

Another factor can also play a role in increasing facial homogamy.

One study demonstrated that partners who live with each other for a long period of time become physically similar in their facial features. Their facial similarity increases and becomes apparent after 25 years of cohabitation. Moreover, those with such an increasing resemblance experienced greater marital happiness. The authors proposed a “vascular theory of emotional efference” (VTEE) to explain this effect (McIntosh, Zajonc, et al., 1997; Zajonc et al., 1987).

According to this idea, emotional processes cause vascular alterations that are influenced in part by facial musculature. The face muscles are thought to operate as ligatures on veins and arteries, allowing blood to be diverted away from or directed toward the brain. As a result, habitual usage of facial musculature may have a long-term effect on facial features. Two people who have lived together for a long time will develop physical similarities in their facial features as a result of frequent empathic imitation. Kin resemblance may thus be more than just a result of shared genes but also of long-term social contact and the mere exposure effect.

The Other Articles of Interest on the Topic

Genetic Secrets of Love Attraction

Attraction to Familiar Others

Genetic Diversity and Genetic Sexual Attraction

Our Predisposition to Homogamy in Love

Sexual Preferences for Physical Attractiveness

What’s an Ideal Age Difference in Dating?

Physical Beauty of Men and Women Across Cultures

Women and Men Who Are Physically Attractive in Different Cultures

Attraction to Familiar Others

Something familiar is frequently attractive to us, despite our interest in novelty. It is a persistent pattern of human perception and behavior, which is called the familiarity principle (Reis & Sprecher, 2009).

The principle is rooted in the mere exposure effect. We consider familiar situations, objects, actions, and people to be safe and unlikely to be harmful. People commonly like safe environments.

The Familiarity Principle in Relationships

The familiarity principle is important in interpersonal attraction to another person. “Birds of a feather tend to flock together.”

Imprinting, familiarity, and similarity use the same psychological mechanism as prototypicality. The perception of familiarity in the appearance of another person emerges due to the perception of his or her prototypicality. A prototypical person triggers attraction and desire for a relationship.

Many studies have shown that people tend to like others who look and behave familiar (e.g., Moreland & Zajonc, 1982; Peskin & Newell, 2004; Reis et all, 2011).

Familiarity breeds attraction. In general, we like the types of people who appear familiar to us. We have frequently seen them before. They have familiar physical appearances, personalities, and behavioral patterns.

This is one of the major obstacles to interracial and intercultural communication and relationships. So, men and women generally prefer to mingle among those of the same race, ethnicity, faith, and cultural background (Brooks & Neville, 2017).

Early Development of Attraction Preferences

The development of attraction preferences begins in early childhood and takes place on a subconscious level. The environment in which we grew up and the people with whom we spent a lot of time essentially affect our future preferences for boyfriends, girlfriends, and other partners in relationships. Our mother (or grandmother), father (or grandfather), and other close relatives frequently serve as templates for such preferences. The positive imprinting and repeated exposure to these people increase our attraction to them.

Sexual Imprinting in Children

The phenotype of the opposite-sex caregiver, with whom a child spent much of his or her early years, serves as a prototype for his or her future mate preference. The appearance of any person (a parent, stepparent, or another person) who raised a child for the majority of their formative years plays this role. This is called positive sexual imprinting (Bereczkei et al., 2002, 2004).

For example, researchers found that women tend to choose spouses that resemble their adoptive fathers. These findings exclude the factor of genetic similarity in favor of imprinting (Bereczkei et al., 2004).

Therefore, our early life experiences can set our mating preferences. In the future, if a man or woman resembles that prototypical person imprinted in childhood, for example, a mother or father, then this person may have a better chance of being sexually appealing. Thus, early childhood experience can shape mate preferences, even without being noticed.

As Fraley and Marks (2010, p. 1210) argued,

“beneath the surface, those early experiences are setting the stage for a set of preferences that essentially co-opt early attachment and caregiving experiences in the service of sexuality, leading people to find attractive in others features that are shared by their family members.”

Conscious and Unconscious Effects of Familiarity in Attraction

Three experimental studies have shown that the effects of familiarity and novelty on sexual attraction have different directions depending on whether the feeling of familiarity appears from conscious or unconscious sources. Their results showed that when participants were unaware of repeated exposure, the mere exposure effect increased attraction to a target person. However, when participants were aware of the repeated exposure, their attraction to the target person weakened (Fraley & Marks, 2010).

Thus, familiarity inspires sexual attraction when an individual is not aware of the origins of why another seems familiar. This potential partner may appear novel. However, this novelty is intriguing because the individual perceives in the partner something familiar that is difficult to explain.

You can also be interested in the articles:


Bereczkei, T., Gyuris, P., Koves, P., & Bernath, L. (2002). Homogamy, genetic similarity, and imprinting; parental influence on mate choice preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 33, 677-690.

Bereczkei, T., Gyuris, P., & Weisfeld, G. E. (2004). Sexual imprinting in human mate choice. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 271, 1129-1134.

Brooks, J. E., & Neville, H. A. (2017). Interracial attraction among college men: The influence of ideologies, familiarity, and similarity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships34(2), 166-183.

Fraley, R. C., & Marks, M. J. (2010). Westermarck, Freud, and the incest taboo: Does familial resemblance activate sexual attraction?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin36(9), 1202-1212.

Moreland, R. L., & Zajonc, R. B. (1982). Exposure effects in person perception: Familiarity, similarity, and attraction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology18(5), 395-415.

Peskin, M., & Newell, F. N. (2004). Familiarity breeds attraction: Effects of exposure on the attractiveness of typical and distinctive faces. Perception33(2), 147-157.

Reis, H. T., Maniaci, M. R., Caprariello, P. A., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2011). Familiarity does indeed promote attraction in live interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(3), 557–570https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022885

Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (2009). Familiarity principle of attraction. In Encyclopedia of human relationships (Vol. 1, pp. 597-597). SAGE. https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412958479.n194