Similarity Attracts

Valentine’s season is upon us. Love, relationships and attraction are given a special focus throughout this time of year. Many people out there, perhaps even you, end up finding dates using any number of apps on their phones.

Have you heard of similarity attraction theory? You may readily apply it when using your dating apps. It suggests people are attracted to others who are more similar to themselves than otherwise. For example, these apps encourage users to share their habits, favorite music, food or celebrity. The algorithm can then suggest a mate for the user, based on a similar taste of Indian food, support to the New England Patriots and the love of Maroon 5, for example.

Similarity can be evaluated based on attributes as overt as gender, age, ethnicity, etc., or as complex as personality, values, and other similar traits. The former is called surface-level similarity while the latter is deep-level similarity. Think which you would rather use to be matched with someone on an app.

Of course, we don’t have to stick romance to explain this. An example of surface-level similarity is a large-scale research conducted with 1,974 military cadets in 167 squads. Results show that same‐sex leader-follower pairings had more positive relationships than different‐sex pairings [1]. Of course, people are more complicated than just gender and food and bands we enjoy. Deep-level similarity, such as values we hold, has a profound effect on a wide range of things, including the relationships we have in the workplace.

Researchers investigated how leaders and their followers’ relationship was built. They studied 166 newly hired employees and their supervisors in the first six months of an employees’ time working at the organization. Employees were surveyed on how similar they were to their supervisor in terms of values and problem solving after two weeks of interactions.

These similarities predict employees’ perceptions of liking of leader and the quality of that relationship to the leader six months afterward [2]. That said, values similarity established in early interactions determines how much you like your boss and how well you get along with each other.

On a related note, a later study found that when leaders and their followers share similar personality attributes, such as the tendency to take action to influence their environment (proactivity), followers have higher opinions of these leader-member relationships, and it induces higher job satisfaction, work commitment and job performance [3].

However, what happens when leaders are dissimilar to their followers? Findings suggest a devastating result: When leaders perceived dissimilarity in values and problem solving between themselves and the followers, leaders thought those followers were unworthy of being treated well.

Therefore, perceived dissimilarity made the leader feel annoyed working with those dissimilar followers and thus think dissimilar ones were ineffective at their job, resulting in said leader’s hostile behaviors, such as putting people down in front of others [4]. Dissimilarity between individuals not only leads to dissatisfying relationships, but it also boosts workplace mistreatment.

Is there anything we can do to prevent the negative influence of dissimilarity? Being inclusive and open-minded is definitely our very first suggestion. Finding someone similar to you is good for you. But if you can’t find anyone similar to you, embrace the difference and learn from others’ strengths! After all, Valentine’s Day isn’t solely regulated to romantic love. It’s about opening our hearts and minds to others in our lives.



[1] Vecchio, R. P., & Brazil, D. M. (2007). Leadership and sex‐similarity: A comparison in a military setting. Personnel Psychology, 60(2), 303-335.

[2] Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., & Stilwell, D. (1993). A longitudinal study on the early development of leader-member exchanges. Journal of applied psychology, 78(4), 662-674.

[3] Zhang, Z., Wang, M. O., & Shi, J. (2012). Leader-follower congruence in proactive personality and work outcomes: The mediating role of leader-member exchange. Academy of Management Journal, 55(1), 111-130.

[4] Tepper, B. J., Moss, S. E., & Duffy, M. K. (2011). Predictors of abusive supervision: Supervisor perceptions of deep-level dissimilarity, relationship conflict, and subordinate performance. Academy of Management Journal, 54(2), 279-294.


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