April 01, 2016

Dinner for two

Dinner for two. Credit: Chris JL / Flickr Creative Commons

A new joint study from Wellesley College and the University of Kansas shows that old wives’ tales don’t always hold dating wisdom. The maxim that “opposites attract” is far from the truth.

Professors Chris Crandall (Kansas) and Angela Bahns (Wellesley) compared the similarity of friends and partners who recently met to those who have been together for years.

The results were surprising. Couples who knew each other better hadn’t grown closer over time; they’d been aligned since day one.

That’s not to say that your partners or friends don’t influence you. Habits like music taste and food consumption can evolve, along with countless other preferences. But encompassing, enduring, and well-established values are unlikely to budge.

Bahns’ results prompted reflection on her own relationships. “I like to think I value diversity,” she says. “But when I look at my own friendships and relationships, people are politically liberal just like me…. I can point to demographic diversity, but in terms of attitudes we’re pretty like-minded.”

So how exactly do we seek out people with similar values? Is it active curation or something more subliminal?

Bahns looked into that question, too. She asked a room of students to pick someone they had never spoken to before and have a two-minute conversation about their favorite vegetable, a topic chosen specifically for its mundanity. She found that, after just two minutes of relatively meaningless conversation, people who had similar attitudes and values were more likely to become friends.

Bahns still isn’t sure how you sense someone’s deep-seated values from a first conversation. But she suspects that even chitchat can give us subconcious hints about another person’s belief system.

Of course, you can still date someone with different values from you. (Ever heard of the star-crossed lovers Matalin and Carville?) But, Bahns warns, it’s important to realize that parts of your value systems might never align.

“Change is difficult and unlikely,” she says. “It’s easier to select someone who’s already compatible with your needs and wants at the beginning than it is to try and change them.”

Body and Mind, relationships, higher ed, Angela Bahns

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