The saying may go “opposites attract,” but how often do you see couples that look exactly alike? Think Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, Alexis Bledel and Vincent Kartheiser, and Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake – they all kind of look alike, right? It may seem peculiar, but feeling attracted to someone who looks like you is actually a very common phenomenon – and it doesn’t just affect our partner choices either. It also affects who we pick to be friends with too!
And think about your celebrity girl crushes – do you notice any similarities among them? Do they share your blue eyes or curly hair? What about your friends? Are most of them dedicated gym bunnies like yourself?
Here’s the science behind why we’re attracted to our lookalikes.
Why Are We Attracted to What’s Familiar?
Justin Lehmiller is a researcher at the Kinsey Institute who says we naturally gravitate to people who are familiar. It’s a subconscious process, but according to Lehmiller, “what is familiar to us tends to be what we like and are drawn to.” As you’re familiar with your own appearance, seeing other people who share similar traits can lead to liking them more for that reason.
Think about the influencers and celebrities you follow on social media that you look to for inspiration. Do you share any similarities with them? Body type, skin color, hairstyle, etc.? When you consider aspirational content, it makes sense that you'd choose girls to follow or admire that you can imagine becoming yourself.
In a study conducted in 2013, people were shown images of their romantic partner’s face, however, the image had been altered slightly. The images were changed to include some features from another person’s face, either a random person’s face or the participant’s own face. For both male and female participants, the results were clear – the composite that included their own faces was rated as the most attractive.
Similar results were found in another study that was published in 2010. In this experiment, researchers found people were subconsciously attracted to features of their opposite-sex parent. During the study, participants had to rate images of other people. The study found that participants rated images of others as more attractive when a picture of their opposite-sex parent quickly flashed across the screen first. As a result, researchers believe that the participants were subliminally primed by the familiar face.
Furthermore, a 2018 study that looked at biracial people found the participants tended to be attracted to and couple up with people who resemble their parents, regardless of sex.
But this phenomenon doesn’t end with who we choose to date. It also affects who we pick as friends!
Why Do We Pick Friends Who Are Genetically Similar to Us?
The way we pick our friends goes way beyond superficial features. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, our friends are as similar to us genetically as you’d expect fourth cousins to be. So, this means that you and your friend may share the same genetic markers that you would expect if you had the same great-great-great-grandparents.
According to James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California at San Diego, the resemblance is only slight, around 1% of genetic markers. Although people aren’t consciously aware of these genetic factors, research suggests that they’re strong enough to be measured statistically in a large data set.
Fowler co-authors the study with Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Yale University. Their data-driven study covers hundreds of friendship pairs and stranger pairs, and uses data from a medical research study of 1,932 people who have been involved in a heart-disease research project. It’s a decades-long study (dating back to 1948) that has given scientists the opportunity to investigate similarities among friends. As almost everyone in the study group is white, the results can’t be generalized to other ethnic groups. However, Fowler’s expectation is that it will have the same results, “but we don’t know.”
In the study, researchers looked at 1,367 friendship pairs, and of that group, they investigated 466,608 genetic markers and variants of those markers. Ultimately, they discovered that friends were more likely than strangers to share many genetic variants.
But despite all these similarities in the friends we choose, there is one dissimilarity – our immune systems. According to research, we tend to pick friends whose immune systems are different from our own. Although this appears to reject the hypothesis that we are attracted to similar genetics, it actually reinforces the broader thesis that there may be a biological influence on friendship preference. For example, if you’re immune to virus “X,” but your friend is immune to virus “Y,” neither of you will pass virus “X” or “Y” to one another, improving chances of survival.
How Do We Choose Biologically Similar Friends?
It isn’t clear how we find these people who are genetically similar to us. However, it’s plausible to suggest that there are many factors at work, and things we can see quite clearly, like hair color or body shape, may influence it.
Ultimately, the science on this issue isn’t settled, but this research reveals how social networks are “an important engine for human evolution.” “Our friends are sort of like family members. They’re functional kin,” says Fowler.
A good friend can almost become an extension of your family, so it makes sense that we would choose friends who feel and look like a member of our own family.
Although the science isn’t settled, it seems fair to conclude the people we find attractive are similar to us, but it’s not for reasons of vanity. This biological instinct seems to date back to our pre-civilized past, where survival was essential. Our ancestors may have deemed that familiar people could be trusted, and outsiders who looked and acted differently to us were more likely to be a threat.
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