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 Sciencesclaiming scientific evidence for the proposition that 'opposites do not attract.' I do not know who's to blame herefor the sensational marquee-style conclusion "Opposites Do Not Attract": CNN.com or the university where theresearch was conducted—Cornell. I do understand that CNN likes a good (terse) headline, but I am also familiarwith 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 thatthe 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 thepsychological researcher claims expertise (i.e., him- or herself), but arguably they have greater insight intotheir own material. For this reason, psychological researchers neglected to develop an emic tradition (i.e., thepractice of delving deeply into a smaller number of individual participants) in favor of cosmetically rigorousmethods that cannot be penetrated by the untrained layperson. This creates a thin veneer of authority andexpertise which, in actuality, alienates the researcher from his or her own wits and from the depth and scopeof material associated with the phenomena under study.Opposites AttractTheir 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 byvirtue of similar characteristics. But how do we know this if we have not yet found our soul mate? Do theseparticipants really understand what it means to be their soul mate, to find a soul mate, to be in a relationship with asoul mate? Are they qualified, or knowledgeable enough about their own psyches, to know the characteristics ofthis individual? To predict physical or romantic attraction to such a person? I don't know about you, butsoul mates are elusive and unpredictable. I can't pick my soul mate out of a lineup (which is what the research istantamount to). The true soul mate often crashes the party that is our life, striking us as quite exotic, and may evencomplicate things for us. I meet a lot of people similar to me on those 10 characteristics, and I am hardly attractedto any of them. I don't even like some of them. Some others I like but they arouse feelings in me no deeper thanthose 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 thatsimilarities attract, and that's all these participants are doing. Honestly, how can you expect these participants toassign different ratings for their desired partner than for themselves? I understand it can happen, but it isunreasonable 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 dissimilarityof ratings for the characteristics included in this list. I mean, these are desiderata. Like I really want a partnerto be less faithful and to be in poorer health than me. If you want to really research this issue, pick attitudeslike introversion and extraversion and then actually measure these attitudes in a person to whom the participantis physically or mystically attracted. Because I just bet that while the participant may tell me he wants someonesimilar on this dimension, he may in fact find that he is being unwittingly led by attraction toward persons whoare at the other end of the spectrum. Seriously! Recruit participants who reported having had a crush on (ormystical attraction to) some office co-worker or even stranger, then recruit those named, and then administerquestionnaires 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 falselyassumes 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 thisdistinctly epidemiological research gets. They need to purge the word attraction from their paper altogether, maybereplace it with relationship stability or longevity, which is not an uninteresting subject in its own right, but it is clearly not what we mean byattraction within the popular culture. The use of the term here creates confusion and deceives the public into thinkingthat opposites do NOT attract, something this research never put to the test. Attraction refers to a processwhereby individuals feel drawn to one another. It may be a physical attraction. It may be some intuitive impetusto what feels like a mystical union of sorts. It may also be other things. When I reminded academics of this broaderand 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 butit does empower me as a critic. It increases my clout with the general public, among which such a response stokessentiment that researchers are out of touch with human nature — that they are indifferent to what is important topeople 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 compatiblemate, 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 psychologicalbalance and experiential breadth, that is, their mental health, personal development, and individuation. And withoutgetting 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 havedesigned (which is even more sophisticated and substantive than what I recommended above) would have metthe dual challenges of being both testable and relevant. I am not as comfortable or cavalier as many in the fieldabout giving up relevance for testability -- certainly not at the outset or front end where our programs of researchneed to be exploratory, broad-based, open-ended, fact-finding, and free-wheeling. (I respectfully submit that ourefforts to understand human attraction should resemble more the reconnaissance mission to Saturn than the focusedtechnical querying of the Martian landscape). And my research would not have deceived the public with claims toopposites 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.comwould never have popularized the results on their news portal.Complementarity is a complex dynamic involving both similarity and oppositionality; it is even more interestingand valuable than the proposition that opposites do NOT attract. I mean, show some curiosity here. If you'velost 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, theseresearchers appear to have data supporting a theory and theory supporting the data. What many consumersof research do not know, and this includes many psychology majors and graduate students, is that hypothesessuch as 'opposites do not attract' and theories such as the 'evolutionary perspective' which appear to receivesupport from a particular research study can be shown to be inadequate or even inaccurate by an alternativetheory that captures a broader view of the phenomenon. In other words, if I modified the methodology andoffered 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 trueeven while the Cornell research makes no technical mistakes. The Cornell research is not beingfaulted 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 beattributed 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 psychodynamicopponents to the opposites-do-not-attract literature, in whose models the personality is portrayed as aself-regulatory system of checks and balances. It is a theory that commands attention. There is a distinctpossibility that attraction serves as a vehicle for compensation or self-correction, and that the opposite sex partnerserves as a bridge to that part of our natures (and the world) from which we are alienated. It's not unlike combinghairballs out of a cat who developed mats from laying too much in this or that position and on this or that part ofits body. We also show biases in the way we brush our teeth, which is what a dentist assesses when he or she ratesthe gumline beneath each of your teeth on a 1-6 scale. Well, the biases in our values and skills and other personalityfunctions also have limiting and potentially debilitating effects on our capacity to adjust and grow. The trialsand 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, aninfatuation is not reciprocated and may not even be healthy, but I suspect that if we were to research theseexperiences, we would find that the object of such infatuations is a carrier of many qualitiesopposite those that comprise our biases and endorsements. Moreover, we may be able to establish a compellingcase 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 orself-development through complementarity. And I regret the absence of the complementarity construct fromthe lexicon of attraction researchers, who appear to be stuck on this static, one-dimensional, and non-functionalconception of similarity.More importantly, good research is NOT driven by a political agenda (i.e., to cleave the public of its lore sothat they as psychologists are elevated to gods among men). And I am not prepared to place the full responsibilityfor the article on the CNN writers. We do not cast buckets of bloody chum into the blue and then blame sharksfor 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 aline of ink on a career-building CV. Their role in this is at best passive-aggressive. In my view, the Cornellresearchers were not studying attraction per se, but relationship stability or longevity. And if they were at allresponsible, their conclusions should have only addressed marital stability and not attraction as a whole.Why Love at First Site Is ImportantIt's not the only attraction event, but one of many, and they are all important. People do the damndest things forlove at first sight. It is an intoxicating state. It can throw people into a funk where they change the way they viewthemselves or present themselves to the world. Thus the nature of the person in whom one falls head overheels 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 otherwords, while we may think physical appearance is the impetus to attraction and the personality coincidentallyaccompanies that appearance, it is quite conceivable that the person fell head over heels in response to somethingthey 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 generallyregard 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 theircapacity to elicit the strong desire). But there is a mythological, romantic, or sexual component to the attractionnevertheless, 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 remarkableconsequences (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 totake 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 scientistsexcel as technicians but fall very short in the conceptualization department. Now there are many factors that accountfor this trend, including anti-intellectual bias, existential timidity, cognitive laziness, and a mindless slavish compliancewith the most simple or safe research designs. There is a template or cookie-cutter mentality at work that drivesscientists to design research that is publication-friendly and formally unassailable – that is, likely to produce positivefindings and impervious to criticism, but that is as frivolous as it is risk-averse. The research impeccably deploysdesign principles and utilizes sophisticated statistics — making no official mistakes — and competitively panders tothe lowest common denominator of a peer review committee — but this execution cannot compensate for what islacking in the way of depth of conceptualization and scope of fact collection. Thus we end up with journals uponjournals of articles with scientific gravitas but without any solid foundationin the phenomena under study. Attractionis one of those messy research subjects that pose difficulties for scientists who have erected careers inside thesesandboxes. 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 administerquestionnaires to strange women before I decide to be attracted to them. Attraction is not a decision. It is a mysteriousvisceral reaction, and the image to which we are reacting is a mixture of physiognomic (i.e., physical) and psychologicalqualities. 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 seldomelicited 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 justhow am I able to pick up these qualities in these strange women? And what purpose does it serve? What are theshort-term and long-term effects? These are the questions in which I am interested. These are the issues centralto the issue of attraction. These are the issues the psychological researchers seem unwilling and ill-equipped toaddress. This is a far more complex issue. The scientists have treated this as such a simple-minded subject, thatCNN.com felt it useful to post a poll of its visitors, inviting them to indicate with a yes/no response whether ornot they thought opposites attract. Good lord! We might as well just publish the results of this poll in the journalProceedings. 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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