By John Salak –
The attraction between people is often more than skin deep, but that doesn’t mean the perceived connections are fundamentally sound. Confused? A recent report presented to the American Psychological Association focused on explaining the distinction.
The study’s research team maintains that people are often attracted to others because they share the same interests or beliefs, reflecting a deeper and more fundamental connection—almost a confluence of essences. This type of attraction often supersedes a physical pull. Unfortunately, while this initial attraction may be real, often deeper connection comes up short.
“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,” explained lead author Charles Chu, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Boston University. “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.”
Chu maintains this thought process is driven by psychological essentialism applied to people’s ideas about the self and individual identity.
“To essentialize something is to define it by a set of deeply rooted and unchanging properties, or an essence,” he explained. “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.”
People also tend to essentialize the self.
“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,” he said.
The research team sought to understand how self-essentialism drives attraction between individuals through four experiments. Participants responded to questions on random social issues, art or artist appreciation or other factors. The results showed that participants who scored high on self-essentialism were more likely to express an attraction to real or fictitious individuals who agreed with their position. Ultimately, these participants reported a shared general perception of reality with that individual.
Chu noted he was most surprised that something as minimal as a shared preference for an artist would lead people to perceive that another individual would see the world the same way. Unfortunately, self-essentialist thinking can be a mixed blessing.
“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,” Chu warned. “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.”