One of the most robust findings in psychological science is our tendency to gravitate towards likeminded people. Psychologists call this homophily – literally “love of the same” – and it exist in nearly every culture. Despite where we grow up or how we grow up, familiarity is comfortable; we like people who reinforce rather than test our beliefs. This is true for a wide number of characteristics: sex, gender, religion, age, education and social class. As the idiom goes: Birds of a feather flock together.
Homophily is most apparent in marriage. Decades of research suggest that we are not only initially attracted to likeminded people but that familiarity is essential for healthy marriage. Consider the Chicago Sex Survey, one of the first comprehensive studies conducted on sex in the United States. One finding was that “the great majority of marriages exhibit homogamy on virtually all measured traits, ranging from age to education to ethnicity.” Likewise, a landmark study conducted by Miller McPherson found that personality traits are a good predictor of marital stability and happiness.
The paradox is why romantic fiction is obsessed with opposites. If data shows that we are drawn towards people like us – there is virtually no evidence that opposites attract – then why Romeo and Juliet, Harry and Sally, and WALL•E and EVE?
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual competition created by Scott E. Rice, Professor of English at San Jose State University, in which participants are invited “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Rice named the contest after the English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who is famous for the opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” which comes from his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.
This year, Cathy Bryant from Manchester, England, won first prize for this gem:
As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are true the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is, in effect, a commentary on clichés. The problem with Bryant’s paragraph, aside from the long-winded, jargon heavy description of the man’s face, is that it centers on one of the most clichéd similes in literature: the eyes as a window into the soul.
One paradox of good fiction is that it centers on sadness. If fiction gives us pleasure, then why are we drawn towards what’s gravely unpleasant? Think about classics in the Western cannon. Romeo and Juliet ends with a double suicide; Anna Karenina throws herself in front of an oncoming train; in versions of Goethe’s Faust the Devil carries the protagonist off to hell; Santiago returns empty handed in The Old Man and the Sea.
There are few possible reasons why we’re suckers for sorrow. Sad stories make us feel better because they give us a chance to compare ourselves to individuals and circumstances that are worse than our own – life might be tough, but at least I’m not dead like Romeo and Juliet. Some research proposes that sorrow in fiction might be a form of psychological relief. A more fruitful explanation is that important virtues, values and morals that elicit uplifting emotions accompany sad moments in fiction.
In Metaphysics Aristotle described man as the “rational animal.” A few millennia later the British philosopher Bertrand Russell quipped that, “all my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.” The question of human rationality continues to bother thinkers today. Evidence from the cognitive sciences gives us a new perspective: the brain evolved not for knowledge and truth but as a tool for winning arguments and persuading others. We’re not rational or irrational; we’re rationalizers.
Nowhere else is this more apparent than politics. We believe that we weigh the pros and cons and come to conclusions rationally and righteously; but we’re ideologically driven, always on the lookout for facts that support our position while ignoring the ones that contradict what we believe is true. Psychologists call this confirmation bias and it shows up everywhere. Democrats watch MSNBC and Republicans watch Fox, for instance. We don’t absorb political information to gain knowledge; we do it to affirm our beliefs.
According to Professor of Social Psychology Jonathan Haidt humans are both selfish and groupish. We’re wired to pursue self-interest but we also yearn to be part of something larger. He explains groupishness this way:
We love to join teams, clubs, leagues, and fraternities. We take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder with strangers toward common goals so enthusiastically that it seems as if our minds were designed for teamwork… When I say that human nature is… groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups.