Yin and yang. Night and day. Opposites create sparks; they make for tension—those dynamic conversations between friends, or, that hot sex between lovers. At least, that’s the premise behind many a good drama. Bella is a mortal, for example, while Edward is a vampire. Leia’s a princess, Han Solo’s a rogue. New research co-authored from researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas, however, overturns the idea that opposites attract, showing that humans are nearly pathologically drawn to people who are similar to them, whether it’s for romance or friendship.
The study was one of the largest field studies on friendship formation ever conducted. It used data gathered by having scientists approach pairs of people in public—be they romantic couples, friends or acquaintances—and asking them questions about various attitudes, values, prejudices, personality traits and behaviors. The data were compared to see how similar the pairs were, and to see if they were more similar the longer the pair had known each other. They were not. That was the most surprising finding in the study, the researchers say: that future friends or partners are already homogeneous even at the very beginning of their social connection.
“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,” wrote Angela Bahns, an assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College, one of the paper’s lead authors. So the idea that couples or friends change each other over time simply isn’t true. Humans tend to select people who are compatible with our needs and goals to begin with.
“Though the idea that partners influence each other is central in relationships research, we have identified a large domain in which friends show very little change—personality, attitudes and values, and a selection of socially-relevant behaviors,” writes Bahns. “To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that social influence doesn't happen in relationships; however, there’s little room for influence to occur when partners are similar at the outset of relationships.”
There are two insights we can gain from this research. One is, it wouldn’t hurt us to stretch a bit, and push ourselves to find people to who don’t always share our same perspectives. It will give us more ideas and insights. Two, if you think you can change a friend or romantic partner, you’re probably wrong, warn the researchers. “Change is difficult and unlikely,” says Bahns. So much for yin and yang.
Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!