“Opposites attract” or “Birds of a feather flock together”?

Do “Opposites attract” or “Birds of a feather flock together”? This is a VERY popular question around the world with nearly as many “answers” as your “know it all” colleague. It’s a topic I’ve addressed before; the way things are going, I’ll address it again.

What’s up?

Sometimes a question is more revealing than its answer. This is one of those times.

So, rather than rushing to answer the question, I want to address it first. Specifically, I take up the question based solely on my experience in industrial/organizational psychology.

Two factors tell of its significance and a third factor implies its specific relevance to me:

It’s frequency. This may be the most frequent question I get in my work. It didn’t used to be, but lately it’s been coming up more and more, usually in group engagements.

The context. Factory floors, delivery trucks, board rooms, basically any place where people perform work is where my work is done. Do these seem like the kind of places folks would bring up a question about romantic relationships? Not to me; at least not initially.

The rise of personality. When I started in my profession, personality was just beginning to re-emerge as a credible concept after a 40 year moratorium. Today, personality is everywhere. And it’s a very large part of what I do every day. When I address a group on the topic of character assessment, I know I will get this question regarding personality’s influence in romantic relationships.

Still, I NEVER bring up the topic with my clients (who aren’t asking for romantic advice). Regardless of the connection to personality, the question seems out of place to my primary job – or at least it used to.

Why me?

Here’s why I suppose I get this question:

  1. Character (personality) counts at work.
  2. Character counts in romantic relationships.
  3. Matters that count (i.e., character) persist and influence behavior across contexts (e.g., work/non-work). Furthermore, character is my expertise. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that I become a human lightning rod for this question when talking “personality”.

Now to provide support for my logic.

Character Counts at Work

Let’s start with the obvious:

  1. Nobody wants to work with a “jerk” – not even a jerk.

When I ask managers at work to describe their best employee, almost all answers reflect character traits.

Good character without skill is not what I’m endorsing. But even great skill without adequate character will NEVER get my approval. One toxic character can create BIG problems, even beyond themselves. They should be avoided AT ALL COST.

  1. Character is hard to assess.

50% of all hires turn out to be regrettable.

Despite best efforts to avoid hiring “jerks”, they still slip in. Studies find that managers are nowhere near as good at making hiring decisions as they think. In fact, 50% of all hires turn out to be regrettable. {Before claiming “I KNEW IT!” and pointing fingers, note that this includes you if you hire}. Frankly, a coin toss would save a lot of time and be nearly as accurate.

  1. Character is hard to change.

We know this intuitively, but in real time there’s a bias that frequently leads to hiring errors: “I can turn my job candidate around”. Recognize it? My response, “Maybe. But how patient are you — really?”

Not so surprising, right? Well, maybe there’s more than meets the eye.

Character Counts in Romantic Relationships

Here I invite you to join me in a simple exercise.

Beginning with reason #1 in the previous section (“1. Nobody wants to … “), read the three points again. Only this time, make these word swaps:

Replace: With:
work “mate”
hires “marriages”
job candidate “romantic interest”

How’d it go?

Changing just three words significantly changes the message, but not its validity – even down to the statistics.

When it comes to judgement, in the heat of romance emotion burns reason to the ground.

This exercise can be surprising in terms of how you view character in romantic relationships. It’s not that you don’t know these facts. The potentially ‘disturbing’ thing is acknowledging that we don’t always behave consistently with our knowledge. You’ve probably witnessed character issues in the relationship of a close friend. It’s easier to see these issue in others’ relationships than our own because of the difference caused by strong emotions. When it comes to judgement, in the heat of romance emotion burns reason to the ground.

Things that really matter don’t care where you are

Why does the romance-oriented “birds/opposites” question just happen to come up when I’m discussing character in a purely work-oriented context?

  1. Because of its relevance at work and in romance, character creates a wide “thought bridge” from work to romantic relationships.

It’s virtually inevitable that bringing up character assessment (wherever it may be) will lead to thoughts about seeking romance, or romance in general regardless of relationship status.

As for, “why me?”

I’ve practically answered this question by now, but to connect the last “dot”,

2. My work in character assessment serves as a “green light” for folks to cross the character-built “thought bridge” from work to romantic relationships.

Example: “Dr. Chris is an expert in personality and relationships, therefore, Dr. Chris may know something about romantic relationships.”

What’s the short-version?

Work: Companies hire ‘resumes’, but fire people.

Dating: People pursue ‘physically attractive’, but dump real people.

Character: It’s the primary reason people lose their jobs; it’s the primary reason people lose their mates. “Companies hire ‘resumes’, but fire people.” For dating this translates as, “People pursue ‘physically attractive’, but dump real people.” Research is pretty consistent: Physical attractiveness predicts getting together, but deeper values predict staying together.

Advice

Take time to get to know the person “behind the resume” or “beneath the surface”. Once you do, there’s a good chance you’ll find that they aren’t the person you initially “thought”. (for better, or worse)

Oops!  I almost forgot to answer the original question.

“Do opposites attract” or, “do birds of a feather flock together?”
Answer:  Yes.
Answer:  No.

Don’t get trapped by the leading nature of this question due to the way it’s asked. There isn’t an “either/or” answer to it (although it’s presented that way). Studies reveal no difference in romantic satisfaction as reported by couples with similar versus dissimilar personalities.

Got doubt? Ask yourself, “Self, would I marry me?” Eighty five percent of you will immediately see what I mean. (BTW: Now would be a good time to list some of your development opportunities).

You in the 15% (who’ve caught 6 ½ grammatical errors by now) that believe marrying your twin would be PERFECT, snap out of your dream to consider this: What happens when your “neat freak” self (with my affection and respect) wants an off-white bathroom in “Bone” while the other you wants (needs?) it in “Eggshell”?

Even tiny stones make waves in perfectly still water.

Even tiny stones make waves in PERFECTly still water. The combination of two perfectionists can lead to disagreements over things the other 85% wouldn’t even notice.

more important than WHAT type each of you is, is HOW you behave…

Regardless of individual “types”, couples can be blissfully satisfied or regrettably miserable. What’s more important than WHAT type each of you is, is HOW you behave in the relationship. If you really want to make things work (this means both of you) from your first date to your 100-year anniversary, you improve your chances by knowing who you are, who they are, and how to speak each other’s language.

Here’s the important thing regarding the question:

Do NOT confuse an insignificant relationship between individuals’ personalities with a conclusion that character doesn’t count. Character counts alright. It counts A LOT. Remember, character is the main reason couples stay together, and the main reason couples stray to others. You may be appreciative of your differences (similarities) or aggravated by them. Extroverts can be, and are in love with extroverts and introverts. Neat freaks are happily married to other neat freaks and even messy Marvin’s.

What matters is what matters to you and your mate and how you deal with this, not simply what your types are.

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