When using pop culture as a reference for relationships, people may assume that Seinfeld is a poor choice. After all, the foursome used nearly any excuse to end their relationships with significant others, ranging from being a low talker to having “man hands.” However, I find the show to be extremely useful in illustrating an interesting point regarding interpersonal attraction — that of similarity between partners. But, before the show, let’s touch on the science.
Research has shown that we like others who are similar to ourselves (Byrne, 1961). In fact, research conducted at MIT, which examined the contacts made between people of different demographics on an online dating site, demonstrated that users opted for similarity (Fiore & Donath, 2005). However, when this similarity hits too close to home, it may actually dampen arousal and become problematic.
The idea that opposites attract is a common misconception. Instead, birds of a feather flock together. We choose people who are similar to ourselves, especially when it comes to our values, beliefs, and morals. The principle by which we choose similar others to affiliate with can be illustrated nicely by assortative mating. Assortative mating involves the nonrandom coupling of individuals who resemble one another on one or more characteristics (Buss, 1984; Watson, Beer, & McDade-Montez, 2013).
Think of it this way, if you are someone who loves to play tennis, you may consider (if your financial situation supports it) joining a country club. There, you have access to tennis courts, as well as potential partners to play with. Over time, by being in close proximity to and encountering the same individuals over and over again on the courts (two other principles of interpersonal attraction), a spark may ignite. Friendship may grow into something more and you might wind up being romantically entangled with another frequent tennis player. However, the similarities don't stop at tennis, you will also find that as you are both members of the same country club, you likely share a similar socioeconomic status. In addition, you probably both live in the same area, as you both likely chose a country club that was convenient to travel to. What this illustrates is that in seeking out opportunities to engage in things we like, we wind up encountering others who share several commonalities.
Beyond interests, recent research demonstrates that we also prefer people who look like us. Yes, look like us.
In a 2010 study by Fraley and Marks, a series of experiments was conducted to examine peoples’ ratings of another’s attractiveness and whether or not our aversion to those genetically related to us is conscious. The researchers investigated if we have a bias toward those who are similar to us, but reject this inclination once we are made aware of the physical similarity.
In the first of their series of studies, participants were either subliminally presented with a picture of their opposite-sex parent or a stranger. After the presentation of one of the faces, participants were shown another stranger and were told to rate his/her attractiveness. Those subliminally presented with their opposite-sex parent, rated the stranger as more attractive than those subliminally presented with a stranger. Therefore, the participants were primed by a relative, someone who looks similar to themselves, and this made them rate the picture of the new individual as more attractive. In the second experiment, a stranger’s face was either morphed with another stranger or a picture of the subject’s own face. Subjects rated the image morphed with their own face as more sexually attractive, again showing a bias for people like ourselves.
Now, before you start to think that we are just incredibly vain and want an excuse to view ourselves as more attractive, there was another component to this series of studies. In the final experiment, subjects were presented with faces and half were told that the face they were shown was morphed with their own image (when in fact it was not). Those who believed that the face was morphed with their own rated it as less sexually attractive than those who did not think the image contained their own face. Therefore, our attraction to those who look like us occurs on a subconscious level. Once we think (or are told) that someone is similar to us, we steer clear, perhaps acknowledging that this is taboo.
So how does this relate to my favorite 90s sitcom? In the famous episode where Jerry meets Janeane Garofalo's character, Jeannie Steinmann, a woman who both looks like and acts like Seinfeld, the two instantly fall in love. He quickly proposes to her making good on the pact he made with George to get engaged. All seems well, until Jerry becomes cognizant that they are just too similar. In a span of one episode he goes from declaring that he wanted someone just like himself to saying that he hates himself and wants someone completely opposite.
I share this important information to illustrate that while we do want someone who shares a similar outlook on life, having too many similarities, and being acutely aware of them, can dampen arousal. Now I dare you to read this and not run off to examine the photos of you and your significant other in the mirror.
Buss, D. M. (1984). Marital assortment for personality dispositions: Assessment with three different data sources. Behavior Genetics, 14, 111–123
Byrne, D. (1961). Interpersonal attraction and attitude similarity. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62, 713–715.
Fiore, A. T., & Donath, J. S. (2005, April). Homophily in online dating: When do you like someone like yourself? CHI'05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1371-1374.
Fraley, R. C., & Marks, M. J. (2010). Westermarck, Freud, and the incest taboo: Does familial resemblance activate sexual attraction? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(9), 1202-1212.
Watson, D., Beer, A., & McDade‐Montez, E. (2014). The role of active assortment in spousal similarity. Journal of Personality, 82(2), 116-129. doi:10.1111/jopy.12039