Why do opposites in love and sex not attract?

a image of COPHC

According to the old adage, opposites attract. It is not only incorrect, but it may be less true than ever.

People have long believed that ‘opposites attract,’ that the introvert will fall for the extrovert, and the bad boy will fall for the straight-A student. This belief has been ingrained in popular culture for many years.

While many people agree that opposites attract and may even cite an example from their own lives, multiple researchers have debunked the theory over the years. “The research is pretty clear, actually, that it’s not true,” says Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist in California who specialises in toxic relationships. “People who share common interests, temperaments, and other characteristics are more likely to date.”

Several studies have found that friends and romantic partners tend to share core beliefs, values, and hobbies. People are drawn to or trust those who have similar physical characteristics, and some research suggests that people prefer others who have similar personalities. People have long been drawn to those who share similar traits, beliefs, and interests, according to both researchers and psychologists.

There is also evidence that opposites repel, particularly when it comes to beliefs and values. And, in an increasingly divided social, political, and cultural climate around the world, we may be even less likely to fall for someone who thinks very differently than we do. Factors such as social media indicate that it is becoming significantly easier for daters to enter ‘bubbles’ of like-minded others, rendering the concept of ‘opposites attract’ more outdated than ever. 

Seeing eye-to-eye – even if it looks otherwise 

It’s difficult to trace the origins of the adage “opposites attract,” but American sociologist Robert F Winch proposed it in a 1954 paper published in the American Sociological Review. His research focused on “complementary needs in mate selection,” the idea that people sought out partners who possessed qualities they lacked (for example, the introvert choosing the extrovert, possibly to benefit from the extrovert’s influence).

There’s been really strong, widespread evidence for similarity attraction – Angela Bahn

However, soon after Winch’s research, other scientists began to reach different conclusions. Donn Byrne, a US-based social psychology researcher, challenged the opposites-attract hypothesis with his own paper less than a decade later. Byrne hypothesised that “a stranger who is known to have attitudes similar to those of the subject is better liked than a stranger with attitudes dissimilar to those of the subject [and] is judged to be more intelligent, better informed, more moral, and better adjusted”. His findings supported both hypotheses.

“That was the start,” says Angela Bahn, an associate psychology professor at Wellesley College in the United States. “There has been really strong, widespread evidence for similarity attraction ever since.”

Bahn discovered this in her own 2017 study. in which researchers approached pairs of people in public places in Massachusetts. They discovered that the similarities between the pairs were statistically significant on “86% of the variables measured,” which included attitudes, values, recreational activities, and substance use. Friends and romantic partners matched closely on attitudes toward gay marriage, abortion, the role of the government in citizens’ lives, and the importance of religion.

Still, there are a variety of reasons why opposites appear to attract, such as superficial differences that make people appear more opposed than they are. According to Durvasula, a “straight-laced accountant” and a “disinhibited artist” may appear to be an antithetical couple, but “their values, whether that’s around family [or] political ideology,” would likely be similar.

Surprisingly, one area where conclusions are less clear is personality. In Bahn’s study, for example, pairs showed “lower levels of similarity” in personality, particularly when it came to the “big five” personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Bahn explains that “two people who are highly dominant will not work well together, so that’s one area where complementarity, which you can spin as ‘opposites attract,’ is far more common”.

However, Youyou Wu, a social psychology lecturer at University College London, conducted a different study in 2017. Looking at the Facebook profiles of roughly 1,000 couples and 50,000 pairs of friends, Wu and colleagues “found that there is stronger similarity than was previously found… for all five personality traits” among pairs – further evidence that opposites may not attract, despite appearances. 

Dating apps encourage seeking similar partners 

This is not to say that people with polarised values and views cannot find success together; it does happen, and there can be benefits to disagreement – or even fundamental opposition – in couples.

Paris-based Ipek Kucuk, 29, a dating and trends expert at dating app Happn, says she recently switched from dating someone with whom she “agreed on everything” to someone who has opposing views on controversial issues such as vaccination and religion. “I didn’t realise how bored I was until I broke up with my ex,” Kucuk says. “While it was quite a roller coaster of conversations with my current partner because he shocked me with some of his opinions, it really made me grow… it broadens my perspective. That means a lot to me.”

Kucuk, on the other hand, claims that she has certain beliefs that she must share with her intimate partner, such as feminism and support for LGBTQ rights. And it appears that many others share this preference.

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Sharing political views is now required for couples to match. In one case, mentions of “Black Lives Matter” (or BLM) on the dating app Tinder increased by 55 times in 2020, indicating that people were unwilling to compromise on partners who did not share their most important convictions. An OkCupid representative told BBC Worklife via email that after the company released a badge that users could put on their profiles to show their support for BLM, users who included the badge were twice as likely to match with other users who had the badge. The outsized cultural influence of social media – and its algorithms that connect people with similar beliefs – may be pushing daters even more toward those who hold similar beliefs and attitudes.

According to Wu, several dating apps recommend people in your social media networks, or based on shared ‘likes’ on Facebook or Twitter follows. According to a 2019 Pew Research study, roughly 48% of US adults between the ages of 18 and 29 used dating apps. According to Wu, “based on our research showing that friends are similar in personality to begin with,” people who use dating apps that recommend friends of friends are essentially meeting more people like themselves.

Dating apps that cater to people with specific views have also emerged in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the divisive 2016 US presidential election. Righter, Conservatives Only, and Donald Daters were among the politically conservative apps that debuted around that time. Bumble implemented a ‘filtering’ feature two years after the election, allowing users to skip over profiles of people who did not match their political and lifestyle preferences.

“It’s simple to connect with people with whom you agree online,” Bahn says. “The algorithms on social media platforms show us things that they believe we already agree with.”