Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Do Opposites Attract?

Anyone who has the most elementary knowledge of human social groupings knows that people tend to get along better with people who are just like them.

When friends have a lot in common they are likely to find their interactions easier and more harmonious.

When people are offered the choice between people who are just like them or people who are decidedly unlike them most will choose the former. It isn’t mysterious. It’s human nature.

Familiarity breeds contentment and ease of communication. Strangeness often feels threatening. When you are involved in a social interaction with someone who is very different from you, you will have more difficulty reading social cues. The more you differ the more you will fear being inadvertently offensive or unwittingly offended.

When people choose to socialize with others who are like them they are not discriminating. They are simply following human social instincts.

I applaud Jonah Lehrer for bringing the point to our attention and for showing, courageously, that it makes a hash out of the arguments for diversity.

Of course, our culture does not want us to think this way.

When you watch a television sitcom or drama you will notice that the characters often have little to nothing in common. Naturally, they all get along just fine. They work together in law offices, emergency rooms, crime labs, glee clubs, or management consulting firms.

The producers who put these groupings together believe that they are doing God’s diversity work. They imagine that diversity is a good thing for everyone and that, given a free and open choice most people would choose diversity over homogeneity.

If people do not make that choice it must mean that they have watched too many sitcoms showing homogeneous communities.

Television producers seem to believe that their purpose in life is to promote diversity by showing people from different cultural, social, ethic, and religious backgrounds working together in harmony.

They imagine that life imitates art, or better, that life imitates sitcoms and teledramas.

As Lehrer reports, the research tells a different story. In a large university more diversity produces fewer interactions between members of different groups.

If there are enough members of subgroup A to form a community apart, then that is what its members will do.

In a small college, however, it is less likely that there will be enough members of subgroup A to form a community apart, so there will be more interactions between different members of different groups.

Strangely enough, Lehrer then decides to pick a fight with human nature: “Despite such findings, our ancient social instincts lead us in the wrong direction, so that we end up trapped within a bubble of homogeneity.”

Why is it wrong to associate with the people around whom you feel more comfortable? You might well live in a relatively homogeneous community and still conduct business with different people around the world.

It may well be that the security provided by your homogeneous community is necessary to anchor your identity and make you more open to interactions with a diverse population of business colleagues and associates.

Then, for reasons that escape me, Lehrer or his editors chose to apply the issue of homogeneity vs. diversity to the question of whether opposites attract.

In doing so he is comparing apples and oranges. If, at a party, bankers tend to gravitate toward other bankers while marketing executives tend to converse with other marketers, it is absurd to say that bankers are “attracted” to bankers but not to marketing executives.

First, bankers and marketers are not opposites. More often than not they complement each other; they do not oppose each other. They might well work together on projects, with each of them assuming a different area of expertise and responsibility.

In common parlance, when we say that opposites attract we are referring to erotic interest. It is somewhat ironic to say so, but the opposites in question are men and women.

The phrase means that members of different sexes are very often attracted by qualities that they themselves do not have.

But then, if, as is normally the case bankers tend more often to be male and marketers tend more often to be female, then it is more reasonable to say that if you invite a group of young single men and single women to a party, the bankers will most likely find the marketers attractive, and vice versa.

To find a situation where the boys congregate with the boys and the girls with the girls at a mixer you have to go back to elementary school.   

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