All you need is love: What who you fall for says about you – study

Science and Health

Who someone falls in love with might say more about whom they are than their loved one, a new study published on April 13 found.

The peer-reviewed study, published in the academic journal APA PsychNet, theorized that people’s sense of who they are impacts how they interpret others. Thus, the researchers believe that people are attracted to people whom they interpret as similar to themselves. 

While many people fall in love with someone who enjoys the same jokes, shares the same political affiliations, and enjoys the same past times, those are just offshoots of the real reason those people are in love. The researchers suggest that it is the same outlook and perception of the world that creates the foundation for love, and the same politics are just symptoms of that shared perception. 

The role of Self-essentialism in love                                      

The researchers define self-essentialism as “a deeply rooted and unchanging essence -makes us who we are.”

Humans essentialize the world into categories, as a way to understand and categorize things. Examples of this include essentializing racial groups, gender categories or even animal species. 

Illustration of tic-tac-toe board with love hearts. (credit: PEXELS)

An essence is identified by two standards. Firstly, observational features that mark a group as different to others. Secondly, something that is immutable. The researchers offer the example of a wolf, which always has sharp teeth, a pointed nose and the aggressiveness of a wolf. A wolf raised by sheep will still be a wolf, eat like a wolf and will exist as a wolf. 

When wolves evolved out of their aggressive mentality and physical attributes, they were re-essentialized as dogs.

Having a strong sense of self-essentialism and self-essentialist reasoning creates a sense of confidence, well-being and helps people to grasp reality.

When someone shares the same attributes as another, it is easier for them to infer that that person will have the same essence and they will, therefore, be interpreted positively. People believe that their perception of the world is the truth, so sharing that perception can create a deep feeling of connection.

The process of falling in love

Once someone has been interpreted as having a similar essence, unconfirmed ideas are projected onto that person. It will be believed that that person shares the same ideas, perceptions and reality based on the initial essential match. 

Having a perception of the world validated creates a feeling of attraction.

Testing the hypothesis: self-essentialism and love

The researchers conducted four experiments to test their hypothesis.

In the first study, the researchers recruited 784 participants and surveyed their beliefs on abortion, capital punishment, gun ownership, animal testing and physician-assisted suicide. After reporting their own beliefs, respondents were directed to one another’s answer sheets and questioned on whether they would choose to get to know this person better and how much they identified with that person. 

The experiment supported the researchers’ hypothesis that self-essentialism strengthens feelings of attraction.

In the second study, the researchers recruited 499 participants in an experiment on personality and perceptual style. Participants were asked to look at a slideshow with a number of colored dots and estimate the number of dots. Participants were then told that their estimates were symptomatic of their essence. 

After being told the false meaning behind dot estimation, the participants were paired with one another’s answer sheets. They were then asked to rate if they would want to know this person better and if they think that they would get along. 

‘A SINGLE QUESTION serves as the sole criterion for whether or not a couple should stay together: Do you still love each other?’ (credit: ERIC HIBBELER/THE KANSAS CITY STAR/TNS)

Participants were more likely to want to know someone that had made similar dot estimations to them.

In the third experiment, the researchers recruited 423 participants who were told they were taking place in a study on personality and artistic preference.

The participants took a short personality test followed by a test on their artistic preference where they were shown eight paintings by two different painters. 

After choosing their preferred art piece and artist, they were categorized by artist preference. Again, participants were paired with the results displayed. 

The participants were asked questions on how much they liked the other person, if they wanted to get to know them better etc. 

Again, the researchers found that participants had a preference for people who were perceived as like them. 

In the final experiment, the researchers recruited 749 participants.

Participants were each exposed to 2 hypothetical social targets who had similar or dissimilar art preferences to the participant.

Even with hypothetical people, people expressed a preference for people like themselves.

“There is something so intuitive and natural about the idea that some deep and unchanging thing inside of me makes me who I am,” the researchers concluded in their study. “This belief in an essential self is not just a private affair; it affects how we see and relate to others. The warm feeling we get toward someone we just met who has something in common with us, that sense that this person is my kind of person and sees things as I do, is founded upon this belief and the reasoning process it enables.”

“On a good day, self-essentialist reasoning facilitates the uniquely human capacity for social connection by helping us see a bit more of ourselves in others. On a bad one, this belief might enable the darker aspect of humanity to socially exclude by delineating the boundary between us and them. By attributing what we can observe about someone to the depths of who they are, we may make unwarranted, or at least premature, inferences about others.”