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The Lure of Likemindedness

March 7, 2012

Do you remember life before the Internet? Many touted this emerging technology as a vehicle for expanding our horizons. The Internet, it was said, would allow us to reach a vastly expanded universe of viewpoints and perspectives, offering new ideas, higher quality information, and fresh ways of thinking about contemporary issues. No longer would we be limited by the editorial judgments of a few journalists and newscasters, for the Internet would let us travel the “Information Superhighway.”

It hasn’t turned out that way, of course. The Internet has instead become an instrument for reinforcing pre-existing opinions and beliefs. People tend to visit news and opinion sources that agree with what they already believe, thereby insulating them from divergent perspectives and strengthening their prior positions. Because most websites gain marketing advantage from filling a particular niche, they present content in a way that appeals to their user base. Lest you doubt this conclusion, compare coverage of the national health care debate provided by http://www.michellemalkin.com and townhall.com on the one hand, and dailykos.com and moveon.org on the other hand. These sites are currently rated by cnet.com as the most conservative and liberal news websites, respectively.

Social psychology has lots of good principles to explain this phenomenon. There’s confirmation bias – the tendency to seek out information that is consistent with one’s beliefs. Also, information is judged to be more credible if it is consistent with pre-existing attitudes than if it is not. We have many studies showing that certain information-processing tendencies – for example, needs for consistency and closure – may lead to more superficial processing of arguments that are discrepant with prior beliefs than of arguments congruent with those beliefs. And then there are self-serving motivational biases – for example, we tend to feel reassured when we feel that others, especially friends, agree with us. In short, we are a lot more comfortable with likeminded beliefs than with not-likeminded beliefs.

The seductive lure of likemindedness came to mind recently when my colleagues and I were preparing an exhaustive review of online dating (Finkel, Eastwick, Karney, Reis, & Sprecher, in press). Similarity plays a powerful role in dating. Scores of studies have shown that people tend to feel attracted to similar others, particularly others who are similar to themselves in terms of values, attitudes, religion, ethnicity, attractiveness, socioeconomic status, and a somewhat elusive construct called “mate value” – one’s desirability as a potential mate relative to others of the same sex and age.

It’s interesting that at least in English the same word like is used to signify similarity and attraction. As an adjective, like means “having the same characteristics or qualities” while as a verb, like means “to want, prefer, or find pleasure in.” In other words, we like what is like ourselves. Interestingly, these words have different etymologies, suggesting that they may have become heteronyms because of their covergence in everyday experience. Language, after all, reflects life.

Whatever the impact of similarity in traditional dating, online dating seems to be amplifying its impact. Some dating sites, such as eHarmony and PerfectMatch, use statistical algorithms to identify what they claim are especially compatible couples. Although it is difficult to determine just what principles these sites use, because their algorithms are well-kept secrets, our analysis strongly suggests they base compatibility on demographic, attitudinal, temperamental, and social similarity.

Other sites provide users with access to the profiles of other individuals interested in dating, allowing them to wade through these profiles using whatever criteria they wish. Similarity seems to play a huge role in these choices, too. People often select others whose backgrounds, demographics, values, attitudes, and hobbies are similar to their own. Given a large pool of dating candidates, it is all too easy to look for another highly educated New York Mets fan who loves Seinfeld, muscle cars, Thai food, and hiking in the Adirondacks.

Moreover, niche dating sites are increasingly popular – sites at which particular attributes or preferences define the pool of eligibles. Consider, for example, sites for particular age groups (e.g., SeniorPeopleMeet), religious groups (e.g., JDate, ChristianCupid), sexual orientations (e.g., PinkCupid, GayCupid), racial groups (e.g., BlackSingles), elite groups (e.g., ivydate.com), disability status (Dating4Disabled), and book preferences (alikewise.com). And then there are VampireLovers, VeggieDate, EquestrianCupid, farmersonly, geektogeek, gothicmatch, trekpassions (for science-fiction fans), and bikerkiss (for singles who love motorcycles).

Some of the latest generation of online dating sites use creative methods to mine the hidden sources of compatibility, but these turn out to be rooted is similarity, too.  For example, OKCupid matches users on the basis of their similar answers to diverse, often off-beat questions (e.g., “How many e’s does the adjecteve form of “definite” have?” Response options: One; Two; What? Where did that come from?; You spelled “adjective” wrong.”), using mathematics similar to neural network methods. Sites such as Zoosk apply smartphone apps and GPS technology to allow users to identify prospective dates who are in close proximity (e.g., who happen to be attending the same art exhibition or baseball game that one is attending). Behavior, in terms of where one goes and what one does, defines similar interests here.

Putting these examples together suggests that online dating may actually be increasing the role of similarity as a basis for romantic coupling. The technology of online dating makes similarity an efficient and relatively effortless criterion for choosing potential mates. The appeal is manifest, for we can easily visualize what similarity might bring to a relationship: Who cannot see the temptation of sharing life with someone who wants and enjoys all the same things that we ourselves do? Unfortunately, the evidence supporting this assumption–that similarity is a critical ingredient for relational success and satisfaction–is tenuous. For example, a comprehensive meta-analysis by Montoya, Horton, and Kirchner (2008) concluded that although similarity may be influential among new acquaintances, it is unrelated to satisfaction in existing relationships. More generally, beyond a few basics, like age, religion, and education, similarity appears to play at best a small role in long-term relationship success.

There is irony here: although most people think of online dating as expanding the pool of prospective dating partners, it may effectively be shrinking the diversity of that pool. Diversity matters because relationships, especially long-term romantic relationships, open us to novel experiences and perspectives. A partner’s interest in photography, Latin-American cuisine, or deep emotional conversations may stimulate personal growth and expanded horizons, even when those interests were not on one’s original agenda. Self-expansion, in fact, is one of the primary motives for entering new love relationships, as research by Art and Elaine Aron (1986) has shown. Openness to new experiences, in other words, is often best accomplished in the context of a close relationship.

The Internet, then, offers us the means to connect with one another in new ways and to explore ideas we may have never before considered, but the lure of similarity can undercut the Internet’s potential. The lesson here is that it may be all too easy to be lured by likemindedness, whether in deciding where to get today’s news or in selecting dating partners. So, to resist its charms, the next time you are looking for an analysis of some political or economic issue, try looking at a source whose perspective differs sharply from your own. Or, if you are one of the millions of users of online dating services, try dating a few individuals whose interests and background are noticeably different from your own. It may just be a broadening experience.

References

Aron, A., & Aron, E. (1986). Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York: Hemisphere.

Finkel, E. J., Eastwick, P. W., Karney, B. R., Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (in press). Online dating: A critical analysis from the perspective of psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Montoya, R. M., Horton, R., & Kirchner, J. (2008). Is actual similarity necessary for attraction? A meta-analysis of actual and perceived similarity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 889-922.

Credits: Image: Renjith Krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2012 11:51 am

    Elise, thanks for the comment. You make a good point. Just for point of reference, most of the big, non-specialized sites do offer matches based on one’s sexual preferences.

  2. March 29, 2012 12:44 am

    Interesting post, Harry. I like the comparison between the adjective and verb forms of “like.”

    I’m not sure I agree with lumping in the gay dating sites with other “niche” sites aimed at people with specialized interests, though. If the subject is dating, starting at a site where you can count on finding people of the right gender and sexual orientation is just the basics, right? I mean, if you call them GayCupid a niche site because it’s for gay men, doesn’t that mean you have to call Match.com a niche site because it’s just for straight people? Or are the big, non-specialized sites for gay as well as straight people?

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