Recent investigations have illuminated the role of self-essentialist reasoning, which revolves around the concept of an inner core shaping personal choices, in how we connect with others. This belief can lead to strong bonds with individuals who share similar interests, but it also poses the risk of dismissing potential meaningful relationships over small differences.
A team from Boston University discovered that those who believe they possess an inner essence directing their likes and dislikes tend to gravitate towards people with aligned interests.
Imagine attending a social event where you encounter someone who appreciates the same band, shares your sense of humor, or selects the same often-overlooked snack you love. Even such a minor mutual interest can spark a conversation—”I love that too!”—and eventually evolve into a deep connection.
This tendency to connect with people similar to us is known as the similarity-attraction effect. And now, new insights from a Boston University researcher have shed light on a reason behind this.
In a series of experiments, Charles Chu, an assistant professor of management and organizations at BU Questrom School of Business, explored the circumstances influencing our attractions and repulsions. He identified a critical component in this process: self-essentialist reasoning. This theory posits that people believe they have a profound inner core that forms their identity.
Chu found that when individuals consider their interests, likes, and dislikes as dictated by their inner essence, they project the same onto others. Upon finding someone with a similar interest, they assume that the person shares their overall worldview. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association.
The research conducted by Chu, who collaborated with Brian S. Lowery of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has several business applications, ranging from managing teams to facilitating deals.
Chu proposes that our self-image may represent a powerful core from which our observable traits originate. Believing in this essential core allows us to conclude that if someone shares a single characteristic with us, they must also share our deeply rooted essence.
However, this tendency to rush towards an elusive similarity based on a couple of shared interests could be founded on faulty thinking, Chu argues, and could limit who we feel connected with. Alongside the pull of the similarity-attraction effect, there’s a counteracting force: we tend to dislike those who we perceive as dissimilar, often due to minor differences like their preference for a particular politician, band, book, or TV show.
Chu states that we only have complete insights into our thoughts and feelings, while others’ minds often remain an enigma. Consequently, we frequently fill the blanks in others’ minds with our own self-perception, which can sometimes lead to unwarranted assumptions.
In his quest to understand why we’re attracted to certain people but not others, Chu conducted four studies, each designed to examine different facets of how we establish friendships or rivalries.
In the first study, participants were informed about a fictional character, Jamie, who either shared or contradicted their attitudes. After surveying the participants’ views on five subjects—abortion, capital punishment, gun ownership, animal testing, and physician-assisted suicide—Chu gauged how they felt about Jamie, who either agreed or disagreed with them on the discussed topic. The participants were also quizzed about their identity roots to determine their inclination towards self-essentialist reasoning.
Chu discovered that the more participants believed their worldview stemmed from an essential core, the more they felt drawn to Jamie who agreed with them on a single issue.
A subsequent study investigated whether this effect persisted when less substantial topics were the target. Instead of probing agreement with Jamie on controversial topics like abortion, Chu asked participants to estimate the number of blue dots on a page, categorizing them—and Jamie—as over- or under-estimators. The results remained consistent: the stronger someone’s belief in an essential core, the closer they felt to Jamie as a fellow over- or under-estimator.
Chu later conducted two complementary studies where he started to disrupt this attraction process, reducing the influence of self-essentialist reasoning. In one experiment, he classified attributes (like appreciating a particular painting) as essential or nonessential; in another, he informed participants that using their essence to understand others could lead to inaccurate perceptions.
In the real world, Chu’s findings reveal a crucial tension. While we are all in search of a community of similar people, this strategy can also exclude people and create divisions—sometimes on the slightest of grounds.
Chu, whose background combines the study of organizational behavior and psychology, teaches negotiation classes at Questrom. He believes his research has many implications in the business sphere, particularly in deal-making.
However, in a time of political division infiltrating all aspects of our lives, including workplaces, Chu’s findings extend far beyond corporate negotiations. Managing staff, collaborating on projects, team building—our judgments about each other shape all these aspects. Self-essentialist reasoning might even influence society’s resource distribution, Chu suggests, dictating who we deem worthy of support and who is allocated funds.
For this reason, Chu advocates for withholding judgment when encountering someone who initially appears unlike us. He proposes the idea of encountering and forming impressions of others without constantly referencing ourselves as a more productive way of understanding others.
Reference: “Self-essentialist reasoning underlies the similarity-attraction effect.” by C. Chu and B. S. Lowery, 13 April 2023, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Self-Essentialist Reasoning
What is self-essentialist reasoning and how does it relate to attraction?
Self-essentialist reasoning is the belief that individuals possess an inner core that influences their likes and dislikes. In terms of attraction, people who subscribe to this belief tend to be drawn to individuals with similar interests, assuming that they share a broader worldview. This belief can shape the way we form connections with others.
What is the similarity-attraction effect?
The similarity-attraction effect refers to the tendency to like and feel drawn to people who are similar to us. It suggests that shared interests, values, and traits contribute to the formation of connections and relationships.
How does self-essentialist reasoning influence our attraction to others?
Self-essentialist reasoning plays a role in attraction by leading individuals to assume that others who share even a single characteristic with them must also share their deeper essence. This assumption can foster a sense of connection and increase attraction to those who possess similar interests or traits.
Does self-essentialist reasoning limit our potential for meaningful relationships?
While self-essentialist reasoning can facilitate connections with individuals who share similar interests, it also carries the risk of overlooking meaningful relationships based on minor differences. By solely focusing on shared characteristics, we may restrict ourselves from forming connections with people who possess diverse perspectives and experiences.
It is important to recognize that individuals are complex, and their thoughts and feelings may differ from our own. Instead of solely relying on self-essentialist reasoning, it is beneficial to approach forming impressions of others without constantly referencing ourselves. This open-minded perspective allows for a more comprehensive understanding of others and can lead to more diverse and meaningful relationships.
More about Self-Essentialist Reasoning
- “The Science of Attraction: Why Do We Fall for Certain People?” (original article): Link
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Link
- Boston University: Link
- American Psychological Association: Link