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Familiarity. Does it breed liking or contempt?

Thu 20 Jun 2013

I allude, of course, to Channel 5’s Big Brother which returns tonight at 9 o’clock. Like it or loathe it, the audience figures suggest that plenty of people find it compulsive viewing.

Personally I’d rather watch paint dry. In fact, I think I saw that episode in series eight.

Now imagine if you were put in a similar house for a week with people you didn’t know. Not a group of outrageous show-offs but ordinary people from all walks of life. A real cross-section with nobody weirder than perhaps a man with an unhealthy interest in steam trains who insists on sleeping with the lights on. How do you think you would get on with your house mates?

(A bit like an office environment really where people from all walks of life are thrown together and expected to get on.)

Psychologists have long since assumed that familiarity actually breeds liking rather than contempt. The theory goes that the more people are exposed to each other, the more they discover the things they have in common, and the more they like each other. When I say ‘exposed’ I don’t mean in the full frontal Big Brother sense. I mean discovering that you share a mutual interest in, say, flower pressing. But a recent study by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School turned this theory on its head. His work concluded that the more you get to know someone, the more you discover the dissimilarities between you and the less you like them.

Think courtship, marriage, divorce.

Or best friends, holiday, nightmare.

So what is it that backs up Norton’s theory and why is he staring so intently at me and my wife? Well, according to his theory, when we meet someone for the first time we look for similarities, and we typically find them. It may be a mutual interest in a sport, foreign travel, the arts, or stodgy desserts. Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t a basis for a long-lasting relationship but it works for some. Unfortunately, after a while - say 250 servings - the assumption that this person is not only like us but also likes us starts to fade. And when this awful truth dawns, we like them less and begin to resent them eating so much of our cake.

So who’s right? Well, in the studies where people interacted face to face, the more they interacted, the more they liked each other. Whereas in Norton’s studies based solely on people’s views on other people’s preferences, the degree of liking was less. And perhaps, more crucially, whether familiarity leads to liking or contempt seems to depend on our motivation. So, is it in your interests to get to know work colleagues really well and generate liking or should you keep your distance?
Well, as is often the case with these conclusions it all comes down to balance. If you hang around with people for long enough, you’ll eventually generate some mutual respect and discover common interests, even if they're not your type.

So get close, but not too close.

Get them to like you but don’t allow them to know everything about you.


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Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion and influence.

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