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October 16, 2011

Why do we like to associate with what's familiar to us?

Firstly: apologies for the creepy pic. My posting begged a photo of twins, and this (from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining) was Halloween-appropriate.

Now I can't stop thinking about that God-awful bathtub scene. Onward...

When you walk into a room full of strangers—new class, a job orientation, the doctor's waiting room—what is your criteria for choosing next to whom you will sit?

According to a study published this past summer in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, chances are that you may find yourself subconsciously sitting next to someone who physically resembles you in some manner. ("Come play with us," your doppleganger may appear to beckon [okay, I'm done with that ridiculous movie now]).

Psychologists have recognized for years that humans frequently associate by race and sex. “Sometimes we either gravitate toward people or away from them not because of a large prejudice but just because there’s something a little bit more—or less—familiar about them,” says Ann Wilson, a co-author of the paper. The latest study, conducted by social psychologists at Wilfried Laurier University in Ontario, found that this tendency runs true for, surprisingly, much more than these broad categories.

Wilson and colleagues conducted a study examining associations between people in a consecutive series of settings, including choosing seats at couches, large tables, and a classroom on the first day of school. In each case, individuals tended to sit next to those with whom they shared specific traits, such as hair length/color and glasses.

The result was repeated when race and sex were controlled in a follow-up study.

“People tend to think that someone who looks a little more like them is more likely to think like them,” Wilson concludes. “If you expect someone to be more like you, you might behave toward them in a more open and likable way.” Is it fear and anxiety that lead us to this desire for comfort and familiarity? Either way, Wilson argues, recognizing these familiar traits may be the lubrication we need to begin a long-lasting relationship in a sea of strangers. After all, what are we supposed to do when our buddy Danny isn't here, Mrs. Torrance?

Okay seriously, I'm done.

Photos courtesy The Quizzard and Miss Begotten. Originally reported by Scientific American Mind.

Mackinnon SP, Jordan CH, & Wilson AE (2011). Birds of a feather sit together: physical similarity predicts seating choice. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37 (7), 879-92 PMID: 21467540

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