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Where Chemistry Comes From

Verbal, non-verbal, and even neural-level synchrony.

Key points

  • Much of our well-being depends on the quality of our interpersonal connections.
  • Shared interests, self-disclosure, and feeling “heard” are key to interpersonal chemistry.
  • Chemistry involves verbal, non-verbal, and even neural-level synchrony between people.
CC0/Lars Peter Witt/Pixabay
Source: CC0/Lars Peter Witt/Pixabay

“Each of us is full of too many wheels, screws, and valves to permit us to judge one another on a first impression, or by two or three external signs,” wrote Anton Chekhov. Yet with minimal time and effort, we routinely do just that.

Often, our data is mined from a brief stream (or “thin slice”) of available information, such as the appearance or behavior of our interlocutors. In mere five minutes, we form lasting assessments about each other’s personalities and intelligence, and concoct mental verdicts about our compatibility. In less than one hour, we settle on a decision whether or not to pursue a relationship, perhaps as acquaintances, friends, or lovers.

These seemingly intuitive and unwitting judgments are facilitated by various forces, including the presence or absence of a certain spark between us, that can magically transform even the most mundane of interactions into an experience of profound interpersonal connection.

Characteristics of Interpersonal Chemistry

If two people were meeting for the first time—say, on a blind date—what would leave them with the impression that they had chemistry? According to speed dating research, it would depend on how strongly the individuals felt a sense of connection and closeness with each other, how similar they assessed their personalities to be, and whether they discovered any shared interests during the course of their conversation. Other predictors of interpersonal chemistry—whether in romantic relationships or friendships—include being personable and open with each other, having similar values and beliefs, physical attraction, love, instant connection, and other “indescribable” factors.

Psychologist Harry Reis has been studying the curious workings of human relationships for five decades. His biggest insight has been about just how consequential connection is. “From health and well-being to productivity and success—it all depends on the strength of one’s connections,” he says.

According to Reis, both the quantity and the quality of our interactions matter. This means that whether through our closest relationships or brief positive encounters with strangers, we need to find ways to continuously restock our reservoirs of "Vitamin S" (where the "s" stands for sociality).

What might help in weaving a tapestry of connections with our fellow humans that becomes the bedrock for a well-lived life? “Being open, genuine, and responsive to each other in a long-term, ongoing way; being reliable and committed; feeling that the other person really understands who you are and what’s important to you and respects that,” suggests Reis.

In a recent article, Reis and his colleagues propose a conceptual model that explores the two sides of interpersonal chemistry: what it looks like (behaviors) and what it feels like (perceptions).

The Interpersonal-Chemistry Model: What Chemistry Looks Like

1. Emerging and embodying. Chemistry, write Reis et al., (2022) is an emergent phenomenon. Thanks to its “transactional” nature, it is set in motion with the repeated back-and-forth exchanges between individuals in the interaction, as partners take turns expressing their goals, feelings, and wishes. Much of the magic of interpersonal chemistry transpires through various non-verbal channels of communication, including eye contact, facial expressions, and bodily signals. This gives chemistry its embodied feel.

2. Mirroring. According to the authors, forging high-chemistry connections might involve the activation of mirror neurons in our brains. For example, in order to gather evidence that they are on the same page with their shared experience, partners may coordinate emotions and behaviors by mirroring each other’s facial expressions. This mirroring can synchronize neural activity among partners, in turn, enabling communication.

3. Self-disclosing and feeling “heard." Another factor that plays an important role in fostering chemistry is how partners receive each other’s self-disclosure. Here, two features of communication are key: perceived partner responsiveness (PPR) and mutuality. PPR emerges when conversation partners share their feelings, needs, and goals, and are met by an understanding and appreciative response.

Research shows that PPR can contribute to the well-being of relationships, thanks to a cycle of reciprocity that fosters a sense of mutual care, trust, and psychological safety: The person opens up, is met with a supportive partner, feels “heard” and “seen,” and reciprocates. According to Reis et al., (2022), these moments of “responsive interaction” nurture deep connections and provide fertile ground for chemistry to blossom. Mutuality, on the other hand, is strengthened when partners express compatible feelings and goals.

4. Synchrony. As the conversation partners take turns talking, listening, and attuning to each other, synchrony evolves between them. This synchrony may include matching non-verbal behaviors, adjusting to each other’s tone and rhythm of voice, as well as expressing similar ideas. These subtle, and often outside of awareness sequences of harmonized behaviors can unfold very quickly and add up to felt moments of connection. Researchers believe that for a sense of chemistry to develop more fully, these “episodic bursts” of connection must accumulate over continuous interactions.

5. Individual factors. Although chemistry has a “relationship-level effect”—it is something that is experienced within particular “special” connections—individual factors can influence various aspects of it. These might include how people experience or express chemistry, how they perceive their partners and how they respond to them, and to whom they are attracted.

Other factors that can facilitate or hinder chemistry in interactions might be how responsive the person is (e.g., Do they have good listening and perspective-taking skills? Are they warm and trustworthy?), or how compatible their goals are with their interlocutors. Even the outwardly aspects of the interaction (pace, tenor) and how the interlocutors perceive them can affect the “making” of chemistry.

CC0/Natalia Lavrinenko/Pixabay
Source: CC0/Natalia Lavrinenko/Pixabay

The Interpersonal-Chemistry Model: What Chemistry Feels Like

The perceptions of chemistry have cognitive, affective, and behavioral components.

The cognitive component refers to how people perceive similarity and complementarity between themselves and their partners when it comes to their goals, values, and personalities. Shared goals can help people feel invested in each other (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978) and create a sense that the relationship is a “unit.” For example, in high-chemistry romantic relationships, partners might form a "couple" identity; on sports teams, a spirit of collective belonging might emerge.

The affective component of chemistry refers to feeling positive emotions, including liking, attraction, and a sense of being “drawn to each other.” Often, similarities between partners can usher a host of positive feelings toward each other, in turn, fostering a sense of being understood and cared for.

The behavioral component has to do with how the interaction partners perceive they can coordinate their behaviors to achieve their mutual goals. Feeling chemistry entails the perception of the interaction as “something more than the sum of their separate contributions,” write Reis et al., (2022). Thus, in high-chemistry connections, individuals tend to believe that they would be more successful if they could go after their shared goals together, rather than alone.

In a follow-up post, we will explore various myths surrounding interpersonal chemistry, including whether first impressions are truly irreplaceable, and if charismatic people enjoy more chemistry-filled connections in their lives.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


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