‘Law’ of Attraction

Words: Dr Jennifer CROYLE

Friendship and love, and more broadly, the relationships that people cultivate in their lives, are some of the most valuable treasures a person can own. This module explores ways in which we try to understand how friendships form, what attracts one person to another, and how love develops. It also explores how the Internet influences how we meet people and develop deep relationships. Finally, this module will examine social support and how this can help many through the hardest times and help make the best times even better.

The importance of relationships has been examined by researchers for decades. Many researchers point to sociologist Émile Durkheim’s classic study of suicide and social ties [1951] as a starting point for this work. Durkheim argued that being socially connected is imperative to achieving personal well-being. In fact, he argued that a person who has no close relationships is likely a person who is at risk for suicide. It is those relationships that give a person meaning in their life.

In other words, suicide tends to be higher among those who become disconnected from society. What is interesting about that notion is when people are asked to describe the basic necessities for life — people will most often say food, water, and shelter, but seldom do people list ‘close relationships’ in the top three.

Yet, time and time again, research has demonstrated that we are social creatures and we need others to survive and thrive. Another way of thinking about it is that close relationships are the psychological equivalent of food and water; in other words, these relationships are necessary for survival. Baumeister and Leary [1995] maintain that humans have basic needs and one of them is the need to belong; these needs are what makes us human and give a sense of purpose and identity to our lives [Brissette, Cohen, & Seeman, 2000Ryff, 1989].

Given that close relationships are so vital to well-being, it is, therefore, important to ask how interpersonal relationships begin. What makes us like, or love, one person, but not another? Why is it that when bad things happen, we frequently want to talk to our friends, or family about the situation? Though these are difficult questions to answer, because relationships are complicated and unique, this module will examine how relationships begin; the impact of technology on relationships; and why co-workers, acquaintances, friends, family, and intimate partners are so important in our lives.

Attraction: The Start Of Friendship & Love

Why do some people hit it off immediately? Or, decide that the friend of a friend was not likable? Using scientific methods, psychologists have investigated factors influencing attraction and have identified a number of variables, such as similarity, proximity [physical, or functional], familiarity, and reciprocity, that influence with whom we develop relationships.

Proximity

Often we ‘stumble upon’ friends, or romantic partners; this happens partly due to how close in proximity we are to those people. Specifically, proximity or physical nearness has been found to be a significant factor in the development of relationships. For example, when college students go away to a new school, they will make friends consisting of classmates, roommates, and teammates [i.e., people close in proximity].

Proximity allows people the opportunity to get to know one other and discover their similarities — all of which can result in a friendship, or intimate relationship. Proximity is not just about geographic distance, but rather functional distance, or the frequency with which we cross paths with others. For example, college students are more likely to become closer and develop relationships with people on their dorm-room floors, because they see them [i.e., cross paths] more often than they see people on a different floor.

How does the notion of proximity apply in terms of online relationships? Deb Levine [2000] argues that in terms of developing online relationships and attraction, functional distance refers to being at the same place at the same time in a virtual world [i.e., a chat room, or Internet forum] — crossing virtual paths.

Familiarity

One of the reasons why proximity matters to attraction is that it breeds familiarity; people are more attracted to that which is familiar. Just being around someone, or being repeatedly exposed to them increases the likelihood that we will be attracted to them. We also tend to feel safe with familiar people, as it is likely we know what to expect from them.

Dr Robert Zajonc [1968] labelled this phenomenon the mere-exposure effect. More specifically, he argued that the more often we are exposed to a stimulus [e.g., sound, person] the more likely we are to view that stimulus positively. Moreland and Beach [1992] demonstrated this by exposing a college class to four women [similar in appearance and age] who attended different numbers of classes, revealing that the more classes a woman attended, the more familiar, similar, and attractive she was considered by the other students.

There is a certain comfort in knowing what to expect from others; consequently, research suggests that we like what is familiar. While this is often on a subconscious level, research has found this to be one of the most basic principles of attraction [Zajonc, 1980]. For example, a young man growing up with an overbearing mother may be attracted to other overbearing women not because he likes being dominated, but rather because it is what he considers normal [i.e., familiar].

Similarity

When you hear about couples, such as Sandra Bullock and Jesse James, or Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, do you shake your head thinking “this won’t last”? It is probably because they seem so different. While many make the argument that opposites attract, research has found that is generally not true; similarity is key. Sure, there are times when couples can appear fairly different, but overall we like others who are like us. Ingram and Morris [2007] examined this phenomenon by inviting business executives to a cocktail mixer, 95 per cent of whom reported that they wanted to meet new people. Using electronic name tag tracking, researchers revealed that the executives did not mingle, or meet new people; instead, they only spoke with those they already knew well [i.e., people who were similar].

When it comes to marriage, research has found that couples tend to be ‘very similar,’ particularly when it comes to age, social class, race, education, physical attractiveness, values, and attitudes [McCann Hamilton, 2007Taylor, Fiore, Mendelsohn, & Cheshire, 2011]. This phenomenon is known as the matching hypothesis [Feingold, 1988Mckillip & Redel, 1983]. We like others who validate our points of view and who are similar in thoughts, desires, and attitudes.

Reciprocity

Another key component in attraction is reciprocity; this principle is based on the notion that we are more likely to like someone if they feel the same way toward us. In other words, it is hard to be friends with someone who is not friendly in return. Another way to think of it is that relationships are built on give and take; if one side is not reciprocating, then the relationship is doomed. Basically, we feel obliged to give what we get and to maintain equity in relationships. Research has found that this is true across cultures [Gouldner, 1960].

Dr JENNIFER CROYLE, PsyD, is Assistant Teaching Professor, Psychology, Penn State University, US. This article, first published in Social Psychology [Penn State University], is republished under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Dr Croyle lives in the US.

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