Mythbusters Series: Opposites Attract


hogan-mythbustersThe longtime notion that “opposites attract” is about to be debunked. For the romantic comedy lovers out there, this news may be heartbreaking. Some of the most recognized love stories are those that involve opposites. Take Beauty and the Beast, Pretty Woman, or Grease for example. All three tales include a powerful, romantic force between yin and yang which ends with the proverbial “happily ever after”. However, when it comes to real-life relationships, the opposite is true (no pun intended): people not only prefer a mate who is similar to them, but also personality similarity is a strong predictor of marital success and satisfaction.

A study published by the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology examined the extent to which individuals seek mates with similar personality characteristics. The study found that participants’ own personality characteristics (as measured by a Big 5 personality assessment) predicted the characteristics they ranked most important in regard to their potential mates’ personalities. In other words, when it comes to personality, opposites do not attract. However, as part of the same study (without seeing the results of their assessment) these same participants were then explicitly asked what they would prefer—a partner who is similar or complementary? The majority (more than 85%) answered the latter, indicating they believe they would prefer a partner who is not similar.

How can this be? It’s perplexing that in nearly the same breath individuals proclaim they want two different types of partners. According to Dijkstra and Barelds, the results are not as surprising as they initially sound. “When asked about their preferences for a mate, people may partially draw upon lay theories of romantic attraction rather than their true desires for a mate. In general, the notion that ‘opposites attract’ is a relatively popular lay theory of romantic attraction: people think that individuals who possess complementary characteristics are highly attracted to each other” (Barelds and Dijkstra, 2007). Thank you, Hollywood!

Although individuals may be a bit confused on what they want in their future partner, when it comes to deflating the myth that opposites attract, these results are supported by additional research. Another study conducted by the University of Iowa found that people tend to marry those who are similar in attitudes, religion, and values. Further, the study concluded that similarity in personality is associated with better relationship quality.

For those who are currently in or have been in a relationship with someone who you consider your opposite, I can understand why you may doubt these results. As I consider my friends and colleagues in relationships, many of them seem quite complementary in terms of their personality characteristics. Also, I have to admit myself that I consider my spouse and I to be quite opposite in many characteristics including communication style and risk tolerance. Yet, I recommend you also consider the commonalities between you and your companion. Upon giving this additional thought, you may quickly recognize, like I did, that we are much more similar than we are different.

For more busted myths, check out posts about right vs. left brained people or the fallacy of rationality and stay tuned for the next post in our mythbusters series.