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Does Familiarity Breed Contempt or Fondness?

Two Male FriendsYou meet someone new. You have lunch, maybe see a movie. Along the way you discover things about the other person. It’s not as if you’re keeping a list of this person’s habits and traits—that would be weird—but you’re accumulating information nonetheless.

So here’s the question: As you get to know each other, will you generally like this other person more or less?

Assuming that you don’t discover something unexpectedly awful, like a fondness for hurling bricks at squirrels, the answer is probably more—at least according to decades of psychological research.

Then, in 2007, a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology challenged that orthodoxy. Researchers showed subjects a random selection of traits, drawn from a list of 28 that included bright, methodical, sensitive, talkative, cultured, impulsive, and critical.

Some subjects saw only four traits. Others saw six or eight or 10.

The subjects who saw more traits liked this hypothetical person less. The researchers showed that familiarity does breed contempt after all. Or, as they declared in their paper: “Although people believe that knowing leads to liking, knowing more means liking less.”

Unless it doesn’t. Since then, two papers have pushed back against that confident conclusion—and found it, if not demonstrably false, at least pretty shaky.

The first was a 2011 paper that took the logical step of actually having two people get to know each other and tracking what happened. Researchers divided subjects into pairs and had them chat. They then tracked the burgeoning friendships over the following days. Some of the participants had two conversations, others six, and the chattiest eight. The researchers surveyed the subjects after those conversations to see how they felt about their buddies. The upshot was that more chatting led to higher levels of liking. The authors put it this way: “As a general rule, in spontaneous, everyday social interactions among newly acquainted peers, familiarity does indeed tend to breed liking rather than contempt.”

Now comes a second paper, also published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, that takes more shots at the 2007 paper. The researchers tried and failed to replicate its findings using a similar methodology: that is, showing subjects a list of traits and getting them to rate whether they like the person described.

One possible flaw in such an experiment is that one or two negative traits can overshadow a bunch of positive ones. To see if that might be true, the authors of the new paper had subjects rate a single trait on a scale of one to 10.

What they found is that the three most negative traits (boring, opinionated, and stubborn) were all more negative than the most positive of the 28 traits (dependable). It’s great to be dependable, but if you’re also boring, then that’s likely to overshadow your dependability.

The more traits on a list given to subjects, the more likely they were to see one of those very negative traits and start to sour on their new buddy. The results seem to indicate that more information does not necessarily increase or decrease our affection for someone. The outcome depends, naturally, on what that information is.

So where does this leave us? In an email, the lead author of the 2007 paper, Michael I. Norton, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard University, stands by the original conclusion: “Our claim is that more information leads to less liking on average across all situations—meaning that there are indeed cases where more is more, but that the preponderance of the existing data supports the notion that more is less.” In a published response to the latest paper, the authors say there are now “three interesting papers” on the subject, and they call for more research.

That response doesn’t quite capture the situation, replies the lead author of the newest paper, Johannes Ullrich, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich. “We showed that their hypothesis is extremely implausible,” he writes in an email. “It doesn’t work with the typical student sample and largely positive portrayals of others. You have to search for the select cases and conditions […] which makes the hypothesis lose much of its appeal.”

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