Do Opposites Attract?

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

To find out, both you and your partner should rate the following statements on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree):

 

Anyone who works hard usually succeeds

Going to war is often necessary and unavoidable

University should be free for students

I believe in love at first sight

It is wrong to eat veal

 

Did you and your partner’s answers tend to be at opposite ends of the scale? Actually, probably not. Whilst the cliché is that opposites attract, in fact, many psychological studies have found that – for both friendships and romantic relationships – we tend to choose people who have similar attitudes to ourselves. An alternative possibility is that couples may start out different, but grow together by changing one another. However, the study on which this quiz was based found that this doesn’t seem to be the case. Rather, we suss out other people within minutes of meeting them, and don’t pursue friendships with those whose attitudes are very different to our own. Researchers in the US first gave participants a wide range of questionnaires on their personality, values, attitudes, hobbies, drinking and drug use, then paired them up, before later coming back to see which pairs had pursued a friendship beyond the study.

Weirdly, a follow-up study found that covering people’s torsos with a black bag – but not a clear bag – impaired participants’ ability to pick out others with similar attitudes and personalities. We’re not exactly sure what information people are gleaning from each others’ torsos – body size, waist-to-hip ratio, a subtle shimmy that radiates confidence — but whatever it is, we seem to be able use this information subconsciously to identify others with a similar take on life.

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