The Science of Oppositionality
 
by Wyatt Ehrenfels
 
 
 
CNN.com reported on an article in the July, 2003 issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 
claiming scientific evidence for the proposition that 'opposites do not attract.' I do not know who's to blame here 
for the sensational marquee-style conclusion "Opposites Do Not Attract": CNN.com or the university where the 
research was conductedCornell. I do understand that CNN likes a good (terse) headline, but I am also familiar 
with the crassness with which psychological researchers seek to dismiss or debunk what they dub popular myths. 
Every few years these serviceable standard bearers and technical savants feel the need to categorically prove that 
the notion that opposites do not attract is a myth. It gives them a superiority over the layperson  the much-maligned
"man in the street", which is critical because the layperson not only shares access to the subject over which the 
psychological researcher claims expertise (i.e., him- or herself), but arguably they have greater insight into 
their own material. For this reason, psychological researchers neglected to develop an emic tradition (i.e., the 
practice of delving deeply into a smaller number of individual participants) in favor of cosmetically rigorous 
methods that cannot be penetrated by the untrained layperson. This creates a thin veneer of authority and 
expertise which, in actuality, alienates the researcher from his or her own wits and from the depth and scope 
of material associated with the phenomena under study.
 
Opposites Attract
 
Their participants rated, on a 1-9 scale, the importance of 10 characteristics in their choice of a long-term partner. 
On each of the 10 characteristics, participants gave their partners ratings similar to the ratings they gave themselves.
 Big deal. What of all that unrequited love? You know, the persons for whom the feelings were not mutual? 
For every one person who smiled on our advance, there are probably 30 who broke, or would have broken, our 
hearts. I doubt these people were represented in the study, and if they were, the study's findings, whether the 
'unrequiteds' provided similar or dissimilar ratings, would have been powerless to explain the attraction. Err, 
professors Emlen and Buston, did it ever occur to you that you'd need a theory more complex than 
'similarity-dissimilarity' to explain attraction. Probably not. So you simplified your concept of attraction to cut it
down to the size of the 'similarity' construct.
 
We're all looking for a soul mate and think the soul mate we will one day find will feel like a soul mate by 
virtue of similar characteristics. But how do we know this if we have not yet found our soul mate? Do these 
participants really understand what it means to be their soul mate, to find a soul mate, to be in a relationship with a
soul mate? Are they qualified, or knowledgeable enough about their own psyches, to know the characteristics of 
this individual? To predict physical or romantic attraction to such a person? I don't know about you, but 
soul mates are elusive and unpredictable. I can't pick my soul mate out of a lineup (which is what the research is 
tantamount to). The true soul mate often crashes the party that is our life, striking us as quite exotic, and may even
 complicate things for us. I meet a lot of people similar to me on those 10 characteristics, and I am hardly attracted 
to any of them. I don't even like some of them. Some others I like but they arouse feelings in me no deeper than
those I have for my favorite breakfast cereal.
 
If you're one of these Cornell researchers, you're asking these participants to echo your own assumption that 
similarities attract, and that's all these participants are doing. Honestly, how can you expect these participants to
 assign different ratings for their desired partner than for themselves? I understand it can happen, but it is 
unreasonable to expect it to happen for more than a few participants and, if you are aggregating the data, that is,
 if you are interpreting ratings averaged across participants, then no, I would not expect to find dissimilarity 
of ratings for the characteristics included in this list. I mean, these are desiderata. Like I really want a partner 
to be less faithful and to be in poorer health than me. If you want to really research this issue, pick attitudes 
like introversion and extraversion and then actually measure these attitudes in a person to whom the participant 
is physically or mystically attracted. Because I just bet that while the participant may tell me he wants someone 
similar on this dimension, he may in fact find that he is being unwittingly led by attraction toward persons who 
are at the other end of the spectrum. Seriously! Recruit participants who reported having had a crush on (or 
mystical attraction to) some office co-worker or even stranger, then recruit those named, and then administer 
questionnaires to both parties blindly. I bet we find instances of attraction to opposites and, under some conditions, 
self-deception and by that I mean instances of attraction to opposites where the attracted individual falsely 
assumes similarity (and not just impenetrable mystique) in the target. 
 
Seriously, Emlen and Buston (the Cornell researchers) took a poll. That's as sophisticated and penetrating as this
distinctly epidemiological research gets. They need to purge the word attraction from their paper altogether, maybe 
replace it with relationship stability or longevity, which is not an uninteresting subject in its own right, but it is clearly not what we mean by 
attraction within the popular culture. The use of the term here creates confusion and deceives the public into thinking 
that opposites do NOT attract, something this research never put to the test. Attraction refers to a process
whereby individuals feel drawn to one another. It may be a physical attraction. It may be some intuitive impetus
to what feels like a mystical union of sorts. It may also be other things. When I reminded academics of this broader
 and more relevant definition, I often received some response that questioned the importance of these phenomena. 
'Why is that important?' they would say. That cavalier attitude is unfortunate for progress in attraction research but 
it does empower me as a critic. It increases my clout with the general public, among which such a response stokes 
sentiment that researchers are out of touch with human nature  that they are indifferent to what is important to 
people about their own life experiences. These researchers were just looking for support for their evolutionary theory.
"Peter and I are evolutionary biologists, so we're both interested in why people would have rules that essentially say, 
seek someone who is like yourself on many of the things you value. Well, if you do, you'll end up with a compatible 
mate, and less conflict in the relationship, and a better chance of a long-term bond and successful child rearing." 
This is tantamount to attempting to use the Big Bang theory to explain the recession of 2001.
Individuals are also driven by imperatives (more proximal than human evolution) associated with their own psychological 
balance and experiential breadth, that is, their mental health, personal development, and individuation. And without 
getting into details here, let me just say that oppositionality plays an invaluable role in these. 
 
I also receive a lot of mularkey about testability. Testability is important, yes, and the research I would have 
designed (which is even more sophisticated and substantive than what I  recommended above) would have met 
the dual challenges of being both testable and relevant. I am not as comfortable or cavalier as many in the field 
about giving up relevance for testability -- certainly not at the outset or front end where our programs of research 
need to be exploratory, broad-based, open-ended, fact-finding, and free-wheeling. (I respectfully submit that our 
efforts to understand human attraction should resemble more the reconnaissance mission to Saturn than the focused 
technical querying of the Martian landscape). And my research would not have deceived the public with claims to 
opposites NOT attracting.  This is either a very stupid or a very irresponsible conclusion to draw from their data. 
They need to delimit their conclusions so they do not over-extend the facts. But had they done that, CNN.com 
would never have popularized the results on their news portal.  
 
Complementarity is a complex dynamic involving both similarity and oppositionality; it is even more interesting 
and valuable than the proposition that opposites do NOT attract. I mean, show some curiosity here. If you've 
lost your car keys, it is wise at some point to put to yourself the question, 'okay, where haven't I looked?' 
What makes this vaunted study so dangerous is that people are inclined to believe it because, after all, these 
researchers appear to have data supporting a theory and theory supporting the data. What many consumers 
of research do not  know, and this includes many psychology majors and graduate students, is that hypotheses 
such as 'opposites do not attract' and theories such as the 'evolutionary perspective' which appear to receive
support from a particular research study can be shown to be inadequate or even inaccurate by an alternative 
theory that captures a broader view of the phenomenon. In other words, if I modified the methodology and 
offered a broader or conditional theory (e.g., complementarity as dynamic interplay of similarities and differences),
I may find results that disprove the conclusion that opposites do not attract. Notice here how this could be true 
even while the Cornell research makes no technical mistakes. The Cornell research is not being
faulted for what it does wrong  hell, when it does so little, there aren't many opportunities to make mistakes
but it is faulted for what it fails to do right. The methodology is not flawed, but narrow, and this can be 
attributed to conceptual and intellectual shortcomings on the part of the researchers. 
 
My complementarity-as-complex dynamic is a modest claim not unlike those of other  psychodynamic 
opponents to the opposites-do-not-attract literature, in whose models the personality is portrayed as a 
self-regulatory system of checks and balances. It is a theory that commands attention. There is a distinct 
possibility that attraction serves as a vehicle for compensation or self-correction, and that the opposite sex partner 
serves as a bridge to that part of our natures (and the world) from which we are alienated. It's not unlike combing 
hairballs out of a cat who developed mats from laying too much in this or that position and on this or that part of 
its body. We also show biases in the way we brush our teeth, which is what a dentist assesses when he or she rates 
the gumline beneath each of your teeth on a 1-6 scale. Well, the biases in our values and skills and other personality 
functions also have limiting and potentially debilitating effects on our capacity to adjust and grow. The trials 
and tribulations of pursuing the affections of an opposite personality, and the initial stages of such a relationship, 
as short-term or unstable as such a relationship might be, plays an interesting role in development. Often, an 
infatuation is not reciprocated and may not even be healthy, but I suspect that if we were to research these 
experiences, we would find that the object of such infatuations is a carrier of many qualities
opposite those that comprise our biases and endorsements. Moreover, we may be able to establish a compelling 
case for the constellation (i.e. non-random pattern) of dissimilar personality qualities in the object of infatuation. 
As I mentioned earlier, I suspect attraction is an impetus to experiences that produce self-correction or 
self-development through complementarity. And I regret the absence of the complementarity construct from 
the lexicon of attraction researchers, who appear to be stuck on this static, one-dimensional, and non-functional 
conception of similarity.
 
More importantly, good research is NOT driven by a political agenda (i.e., to cleave the public of its lore so 
that they as psychologists are elevated to gods among men). And I am not prepared to place the full responsibility 
for the article on the CNN writers. We do not cast buckets of bloody chum into the blue and then blame sharks 
for taking the bait. Psychological researchers enjoy a guilt-free instigation of such publicity by lazily, prejudicially, 
or poorly conceptualized research that subverts the truth and the public interest for the sake of a headline and a 
line of ink on a career-building CV. Their role in this is at best passive-aggressive. In my view, the Cornell
researchers were not studying attraction per se, but relationship stability or longevity. And if they were at all 
responsible, their conclusions should have only addressed marital stability and not attraction as a whole. 
 
Why Love at First Site Is Important
 
It's not the only attraction event, but one of many, and they are all important. People do the damndest things for 
love at first sight. It is an intoxicating state. It can throw people into a funk where they change the way they view 
themselves or present themselves to the world. Thus the nature of the person in whom one falls head over 
heels is given a paroxysmal and disproportionate influence over the course in which self-development will be deflected. 
An even more interesting proposition is that the nature of the person may not have been selected randomly. In other 
words, while we may think physical appearance is the impetus to attraction and the personality coincidentally 
accompanies that appearance, it is quite conceivable that the person fell head over heels in response to something 
they sensed in that personality (or that physical appearance and personality are part of the same image package). 
It is quite common for people to fall head over heels for someone of the opposite sex that others do not generally 
regard as beautiful. In fact, in many cases, the infatuated person will readily admit to not finding the person 
'objectively beautiful' and in still other cases, the object of the infatuation will exhibit confusion over their 
capacity to elicit the strong desire). But there is a mythological, romantic, or sexual component to the attraction 
nevertheless, something that tugs on the person, driving the person to think, feel, or behave in uncharacteristic ways. 
The attraction transforms, with some noteworthy benefits (perhaps compensating for personal biases, deficiencies, 
and excesses with respect to our value system, range of experiences, and skill set) and some equally remarkable 
consequences (putting us in situations in which we are ill-equipped, maladjusted, or just plain destructive).
 
Root of the Problem?
 
The problem with the study published by these serviceable standard bearers is that they are unable or unwilling to 
take this phenomenon into account because it would force them to be flexible or original in their research designs. 
I attribute the shortfall in research to a fundamental oppositionality in scientists themselves.  Too many scientists 
excel as technicians but fall very short in the conceptualization department. Now there are many factors that account 
for this trend, including anti-intellectual bias, existential timidity, cognitive laziness, and a mindless slavish compliance 
with the most simple or safe research designs. There is a template or cookie-cutter mentality at work that drives 
scientists to design research that is publication-friendly and formally unassailable  that is, likely to produce positive 
findings and impervious to criticism, but that is as frivolous as it is risk-averse. The research impeccably deploys 
design principles and utilizes sophisticated statistics  making no official mistakes  and competitively panders to 
the lowest common denominator of a peer review committee  but this execution cannot compensate for what is 
lacking in the way of depth of conceptualization and scope of fact collection. Thus we end up with journals upon 
journals of articles with scientific gravitas but without any solid foundationin the phenomena under study. Attraction 
is one of those messy research subjects that pose difficulties for scientists who have erected careers inside these 
sandboxes. This is not the kind of subject you can penetrate by surveying.
 
From the CNN.com write-up:
 The scientist found men and women who rated themselves highly were more selective than those who did not. 
Attributes that individuals rated highly in others, they also rated as important in themselves. 
 
As a participant, my survey results would have conformed to this trend; however, I seldom administer 
questionnaires to strange women before I decide to be attracted to them. Attraction is not a decision. It is a mysterious 
visceral reaction, and the image to which we are reacting is a mixture of physiognomic (i.e., physical) and psychological 
qualities. As an adolescent, I had a knack of falling head over heels for women who are unlikely to appreciate me. 
There was a quality to their appearance that caused me to think they were sophisticated beauties, but they seldom 
elicited such a response from others and upon further investigation, I later discovered they were anything but 
'sophisticated.' And yet this did not do much to dispel the attraction. So just what was I sensing in them? And just 
how am I able to pick up these qualities in these strange women? And what purpose does it serve? What are the 
short-term and long-term effects? These are the questions in which I am interested. These are the issues central 
to the issue of attraction. These are the issues the psychological researchers seem unwilling and ill-equipped to 
address. This is a far more complex issue. The scientists have treated this as such a simple-minded subject, that 
CNN.com felt it useful to post a poll of its visitors, inviting them to indicate with a yes/no response whether or 
not they thought opposites attract. Good lord! We might as well just publish the results of this poll in the journal 
Proceedings. g

 


 

 

  Wyatt Ehrenfels is the pen name of a social psychologist who assumed anonymity to mitigate the risks associated with the publication of his
controversial critique of Psychology. Author of Fireflies in the Shadow of the Sun, Wyatt provides a sociological analysis of Psychology's organizational
culture and community. He advocates the reform of (or alternatives to) policies and procedures that currently make Psychology's academic community inhospitable to the advancement of knowledge about dreams and other classes of phenomena requiring separate-but-equal standards for research of an exploratory nature. Through his book, his website fireflysun and his cable access itinerary, Wyatt is raising public awareness that a monolithic Psychology with bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all standards imposed across all phenomena regardless to their status (complexity and mystery) will continue to discourage and punish interest in dreams and will continue to promote their neglect and distortion.

 


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