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Why We Can Fall for Someone's "Essence"

... and how that instinct can also lead us astray.

Key points

  • The influence of similarity on attraction is complex and powerful.
  • Even small similarities can serve as a reason to assume that another person has the same essence and worldview as you.
  • Essence can serve as the foundation for the similarity–attraction effect.

Psychologists have long known that people are attracted to those who are similar to themselves, with the “opposites attract” concept often untrue. Similarities, however, may be the tip of the iceberg and represent a more holistic essence to which others are drawn. In other words, we may not only be attracted to similar characteristics and traits but to a person’s essence or perceived worldview, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Defining Essence

People “essentialize” many aspects of life, with typical examples including race and identity, as well as other species of animal. Psychological essentialism reflects self-views on individual identity. Essentializing refers to defining things using immutable and entrenched properties, with the resulting thought process yielding a perceived essence.

For instance, a cat brings to mind many specific attributes that conflate and extend past its claws, fangs, agility, and other physical attributes. When people think of cats, a picture of a graceful, predatory, and solitary creature comes to mind. A cat projects a certain essence that defies its environment. This essence extends well past the biological entity of a cat and manifests in such concepts as "cat people" versus "dog people."

In a press release regarding the study, first author Charles Chu an assistant professor at the Boston University Questrom School of Business, stated, "To essentialize me is to define who I am by a set of entrenched and unchanging properties, and we all, especially in Western societies, do this to some extent. A self-essentialist then would believe that what others can see about us and the way we behave are caused by such an unchanging essence."

Essence and Attraction

Chu noted that people like others who agree on politics, musical tastes, or humor because these specific attributes hint that there’s a shared essence and worldview.

Chu stated, "I think any time when we’re making quick judgments or first impressions with very little information, we are likely to be affected by self-essentialist reasoning. People are so much more complex than we often give them credit for, and we should be wary of the unwarranted assumptions we make based on this type of thinking."

Supporting Evidence

The authors of the study hypothesized that self-essentialist reasoning serves as the basis of the similarity–attraction effect: "Our argument is that similarity breeds attraction in two steps: (a) people categorize someone with a shared attribute as a person like me based on the self-essentialist belief that one’s attributes are caused by an underlying essence and (b) then apply their essence (and the other attributes it causes) to the similar individual to infer agreement about the world in general (i.e., a generalized shared reality)."

They tested this hypothesis by means of four experiments:

  • Experiment 1. In total, 954 participants were asked about their position on one of five issues: abortion, capital punishment, gun ownership, animal testing, or physician-assisted suicide. Half the participants were presented with a fictitious contemporary who agreed with their position, and the other half were presented with someone who disagreed. The participants were then administered questionnaires that assessed their level of self-essentialism, or to what degree they shared a worldview with the fictitious person. Those who embraced self-essentialism tended to be more attracted to their fictitious counterpart.
  • Experiment 2. Among 464 participants, researchers found that people who agreed with a fictitious counterpart regarding something as trivial as an estimation of the number of colored dots on a series of computer slides were likely to assume that they shared an entire worldview.
  • Experiment 3. Researchers presented 423 participants with paintings by either the Swiss–German artist Paul Klee or the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. They were then asked about their preferences and characterized as either Klee or Kandinsky fans. Half the participants were told that artistic preference contributed to their essence, while the other half were told there was no connection. Those participants who were told that their taste in art was linked to their essence were significantly more attracted to their fictional counterpart who expressed the same view.
  • Experiment 4. In a final experiment, researchers once again characterized 449 participants as either Klee or Kandinsky fans. This time, however, one-third of participants were told that essentialist thinking could lead to inaccurate impressions of other people, one-third were told that essentialist thinking could result in accurate impressions of others, and one-third were told nothing about essentialist thinking. Those told that essentialist thinking could lead to accurate impressions of others were more likely to be attracted to a fictional counterpart.

In a fast-paced world where first impressions dominate, people can base attraction on heuristics. One example could be essentialist thinking, where even a single shared attribute could be considered as reflective of an entire worldview. Experimental studies show that people can be primed to place substantial weight on essentialist thinking.

Facebook image: FotoAndalucia/Shutterstock

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