Birds of a feather? vs. Opposites attract? Attraction in selection

It’s fairly common to get this question when reviewing feedback from a personality inventory with a group. Many times people’s minds go to the effects of attraction in selection — but not always at work.

It goes something like this:

When it comes to personality types, which of the following is more true, “Birds of a feather flock together?”, or “Opposites attract?” (participant)

My first response is usually to twist this just a little bit and serve it back to the audience, “I don’t know. Would you marry yourself?”

This always gets a lot of laughs but also provokes the realization that most would not wish to spend the rest of their lives with ‘themselves.’

Why does this happen so consistently?

It’s the psychology, of course.

Two psychological concepts provide the foundation for how I can be so sure about the audience’s response to this question. One has to do with the elementary processes of sensation and perception. The other has to do with social dynamics — especially with regard to teams.

Let’s look at sensation and perception first.

Our human processing system is wired to notice change. As a matter of fact, when our environment doesn’t change, we gradually lose the ability to sense it.

For example: An individual wearing “Spanish Fly” cologne will not notice their irresistible aura nearly as much as those who come into contact with that individual. I’m sure you’ve been overwhelmed before by the scent of someone else. But somehow, the obviously odoriferous to you is oblivious to their odour.

This is called habituation. A constant stimulus in our sensory field eventually fades into unconsciousness. I could go on about this, but you’re beginning to wonder by now, “What does this have to do with whether I’m attracted to myself or not?”

The same kind of thing happens to the way we know our self.

As we become more and more self-aware, or at least think we do, we begin to stash away a significant amount of our self-awareness into an unconscious bank in ways similar to the effects of habituation. The things we do, think or feel over and over begin to slip into the background. In psychological theory, this is under the topic of “Figure – Ground” (among other concepts). Ordinary stimuli fade into the back “ground” and novel or interesting stimuli gain our attention as distinctive “figures.”

So: The things we tend to notice about ourselves are distinctive in so much as they represent figures that maintain their attention grabbing status rather than backgrounds that are so familiar they go unnoticed. Moreover, the things we hold as ‘figures’ carry judgment.

Sticking with our example of marriage

If the things we pay most attention to about ourselves are judged as positive, they represent our prideful distinguishing characteristics. To ‘marry’ someone who effectively neutralizes our positive distinguishing characteristics makes us boring at one level, or incensed that someone is as good (or better) than us at everything we are (and doesn’t miss an opportunity to prove it). You know, the “one-upper”, the person who, no matter what you’ve done, they’ve done — and MORE.

On the other hand, if our distinctive characteristics are judged negatively, they represent our regrettable characteristics. E.g., “I’m too… {fill in your own characteristic here}.” Who wants to hang out with someone that has all of our most personally nagging flaws?

Score +1 for opposites attract.

Now a little about Social Dynamics

This can get a little bit controversial, but the basic premiss is that when two or more are gathered on a team (let’s consider marriage a ‘team’), complementary capabilities can be helpful. Moreover, duplicate or redundant capabilities can lead to problems. (Of course, this depends on the goal of the team, but the premiss holds for most work teams – especially those making difficult decisions).

Husband: “Honey, I want to sell all of our belongings and invest in a stock that’s about to go public.”

Wife: “Are you CRAZY? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard.”

This may not be a bad conversation – even if a bit contentious. A risk-taker might do better to hook up with a studious decision maker than another risk taker.

Score +1 for opposites attract.

Total = 2 points for opposites attract.

But there’s more to the story.

So far my examples have been primarily about personality, or behavioral characteristics. There’s another factor to consider that is deeper than personality.


Values are more constant over time than personality traits. Research shows that whereas personality may be as much as 90% established by the early 20s, values crystalize earlier and more deeply in our psychological lives. Some estimates of the stability of values are in the upper 90s. In other words, values are VERY important to us and they DO NOT CHANGE much as we mature — at least not as much relative to personality — which is pretty stable itself.

I haven’t come across anyone who would like to be stuck with someone for a lifetime that has fundamentally different (or even marginally different) values.

So: When it comes to values, most agree that “birds of a feather flock together.” In fact, this isn’t even worth ‘scoring.’

The Bottom Line

When it comes to “daily characteristics”, or personality, the research leans toward “Opposites attract.” {Even if the truth is the differences aren’t as great as the partners think}.

However: When it comes to more lasting values, research supports, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

This post has deliberately focused on marriage because it is a VERY personal and emotional topic making these points quite strongly. The fact is, they apply in the work environment just as much (the story’s just a little ‘flatter’).

A lot of hiring managers want to hire someone “like me.” This effect even has been named the “like me” bias. But many managers want to add a member to the team who can present an opposing point of view or complementary capability.

So: Like a good practitioner of psychology, the answer is BOTH. (Feel relieved?)

Practically speaking

The next time your faced with adding a partner to your ‘team,’ give careful consideration to the characteristics and capabilities you NEED — not just those you want. Whether you are looking for a “mini-me”, or a “yin to my yang”, you might want to distinguish personality from values.

It makes a difference.

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