Love thy Neighbour?

Psychology of Love – Part 7

It might appear that social psychology research into love and attraction should be awarded first prize when it comes to stating the blindingly obvious. For example, did you know that you are more likely to fall for someone you already know and see on a regular basis, like a neighbour, than someone you have never met! Obviously, we are not going to fall in love with people we don’t know. But, since we don’t fall for everyone we know, why do we get romantically involved with some people and not others? Psychologists have come up with a number of explanations to answer this question.

It is possible that ‘some enchanted evening you will see a stranger across a crowded room’ (or in a supermarket) and fall instantly ‘in love’. However, research suggests that the Carpenters song about being ‘close to you’ is a more likely scenario for love. People who live or work closely together often end up in romantic relationships, which is perhaps not surprising since these are the people we a more likely to meet. But, being in close physical proximity to someone can lead to familiarity and, while familiarity can bread contempt, it can also fuel the fires of love.

The premise that familiarity can lead to love is based on what is referred to as the ‘mere exposure effect’. In a classic experiment on attraction four female assistants were asked to attended classes and were instructed not interact with the students in the classes in any way. The women the students liked most (rated them as more attractive and intelligent) were the ones that attended the classes more frequently. So, simply being seen more often can increase the likelihood that someone will fall for you.

Advertisers and PR agents are well aware of the effect of repeated exposure, but if you are still a sceptic you can test for yourself. Take a photograph of yourself and put it next to a mirror, which do you prefer the photo or your reflection in the mirror. Research has found that we prefer our mirror image, because that is what we usually see, whereas, our friends will prefer the photograph. So the next time you say you hate your photographs look at them in a mirror, they might look a little better.

Although repeated exposure can lead to liking, before you start prowling your neighbourhood or work place to ‘expose’ yourself to your Mr or Ms Wonderful, research has found that ‘similarity’ outweighs both ‘proximity’ and ‘familiarity’. Psychologists have found that not only does likeness-leads-to-liking – we like people who are like us – but ‘similarity’ is what keeps a relationship together. So, Kenny Rogers really knew what love was about when he sang ‘I am you, you are me, we are the same’. But why does similarity matter? Well, people that are similar to us provide us with self-validation – if someone else is like me then I must be okay. Also, similarities make relationships easier – the more we have in common with someone the less work we have to do.

But, what about the saying ‘opposites attract’, could gratifying relationships develop between shy people and extroverts, hedonists and pragmatists? For decades researchers have explored this conundrum and found that, while the romantic notion of ‘opposites attract’ might be appealing, there is little evidence that opposites stay together.

That we are likely to fall for someone we see on a regular basis and is similar to us does tend to look like a case of science confirming good old-fashioned common sense. But, there have been studies that reveal one aspect of attraction that is counter intuitive. We tend to believe that the more ‘perfect’ someone is the more we will like them but psychological research shows this really isn’t the case.

There have been a number of studies – referred to as ‘Pratfall’ experiments – that have found we are more inclined to like Mr/Ms Nearly Perfect than Mr/Ms Perfect. In one study, television interviews of two people, one of apparent superior ability (Mr Expert) and one of average ability (Mr Regular) were shown to different audiences. Both Mr Expert and Mr Regular were filmed conducting one perfect interview and one in which they made a mistake (spilling coffee on themselves – that’s the ‘Pratfall’). In this experiment the person rated most attractive was not the perfect Mr Expert but the nearly perfect Mr Expert when he spilled the coffee on himself. But there is a sad irony in these experiments – the effect works both ways, the blundering Mr Regular was rated least attractive. So, blundering will only make you more attractive if you’re highly competent in the first place. A famous example of the ‘Pratfall’ effect is Bill Clinton, when he was president he made a big mistake with Monica Lewinsky but his popularity didn’t suffer.

I said at the beginning of this Blog that much of this research might appear to be a case of psychology stating the obvious. But, hopefully I have managed to explain why opposites don’t attract and being too ‘perfect’ can damage your chance of success in both the popularity and love stakes.

In Blog 8: Love is a drug.  

Dr. Lori Boul gained her PhD at the University of Sheffield in the UK and the research for her thesis, into ‘male menopause’, attracted worldwide media attention. Dr Lori is probably one of the most outspoken speakers on the topic of human sexuality and in writing her book DIY Sex and Relationship Therapy has dared to challenge the need for face-to-face therapy. According to Dr Lori, “Good therapists can be hard to find and for many people a good spoonful of common sense is all that is needed”.

Whether speaking to the general public or professionals, Dr Lori’s expertise, sensitivity and humour inspire new ways of thinking about relationships, sex and psychology. She has presented talks at national and international conferences, provides training courses and executive mentoring, and is featured as a regular guest speaker with Cunard.