The Social Thinker

How we think about ourselves and others

Do Opposites Really Attract?

Why we gravitate toward people just like ourselves.

A few years back, a woman named Kelly Hildebrandt was bored so she searched Facebook and was surprised when she came across a man with the exact same name as her own. Curious, Kelly sent this other Kelly a message and the two began talking on a daily basis. Within a year, they were engaged. That's right: "Do you, Kelly Hildebrandt, solemnly swear to take… Kelly Hildebrandt?"

Although it is a rare occurrence for two people with the exact same name to marry, this story actually reflects a basic psychological process that occurs more often than we like to think.

Implicit egotism refers to the idea that we naturally gravitate toward people, places, and things that resemble ourself. For example, we strongly prefer the letters in our name and the numbers in our birthdate. Don't believe me? Then quickly jot down your three favorite letters in the alphabet. How many of those letters are in your name? Now do you believe me?

This preference for the letters in our name exists because we write our names thousands of times over our lifetime, so we are more familiar with those letters, and, research shows, the more familiar something is, the more we like it. What does this psychological factoid have to do with everyday life? Surprisingly, this preference for the self drives a lot of our decisions. Implicit egotism makes us attracted to people whose names are similar to our own. The Hildebrandts are just one example, but there are other, higher-profile couples that fit this mold, including exes Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz and the briefly engaged Paris Hilton and Paris Latsis. But even just a few similar letters is enough to increase a couple's attraction. In a series of studies by John Jones and colleagues, participants were more attracted to people whose surname shared letters with their own surname.

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This may sound bizarre at first, but the truth is that we all engage in this process when looking for a mate. Research shows time and again that the key factor in attraction is similarity—we are attracted to people who share our values, level of education, past experiences and goals for the future.

Essentially, we are trying to date ourselves.

That is not to say that we want to marry exact clones of ourselves. A few differences create interest and excitement, but for the most part, we seek someone whose core foundation is identical to our own. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this approach. It is much easier to maintain a relationship and raise children when both partners see eye to eye.

But implicit egotism doesn't just influence who we are attracted to. Numerous research studies have found that it influences other life decisions, including where we choose to live (e.g., it's more likely for Louis to move to St. Louis), our choice of job (e.g., it's more likely for Dennis and Denise to become dentists), and even our choice of brand-name products (e.g., it's more likely that Chris would prefer Coke over Pepsi). It can even affect how students perform in school; students with names that begin with "A" perform better in class than students with names that begin with "D".

Is there anything wrong with the fact that we love ourselves so much? As with many things in life, Aristotle's golden mean applies here as well: Too little or too much self-love can be bad. Too little, a.k.a. low self-esteem, often results in depression and anxiety. Too much leads to narcissism and is detrimental to those around us. For example, people with high self-esteem are more likely to be bullies and engage in violent crime. Violent criminals often describe themselves as superior to others and their violent assaults are typically in response to a perceived insult or blow to their self-esteem. (This is a fact that talk shows and self-help magazines neglect to mention whenever they suggest ways to increase your self-esteem.)

Unfortunately, excessive self-love seems to be on the rise in our country. College students' scores on one measure of narcissism rose twice as fast between 2002 and 2007 as it had from 1982 to 2006 (See Jean Twenge's blog "The Narcissism Epidemic" for more info). This steep incline can help explain our society's obsessions with plastic surgery, YouTube, Twitter, sexting, and social networking sites.

How do we put the brakes on this trend? Can we raise children to be confident without being narcissistic? First, it is important to set clear rules for your children and not budge on them. By saying no and meaning it, you are refusing to give your child the power in the relationship. Living with rules and boundaries teaches children they are not the center of the universe. Second, avoid sending messages that communicate a "win at all cost" mentality. Narcissistic college students admit to their inflated self-views, but justify them by stating that overconfidence is required to survive the modern highly-competitive world. Confidence is something we want to instill in our children, but overconfidence will set them up with unrealistic expectations and encourage them to be too risky in their decisions. Finally, we need to teach our children empathy and compassion for others. These are qualities we often talk about but rarely model for our children.

Below are a few research articles on implicit egotism:

Pelham et al., 2005

Pelham et al., 2002

Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., is a professor of social psychology at Oklahoma State University.

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