Is there any scientific truth to the common maxim "opposites attract" when applied to romantic relationships?

I'm not necessarily looking for one blanket answer, though an overall trend or pattern would be helpful as part of a more complete answer.

Here are some related questions that you might consider:

  • Are there certain "opposite" personality traits (e.g. introversion vs. extraversion, rational vs. emotional decision making, etc.) that are more likely to "attract" than others?
  • Are there any similar patterns regarding physical characteristics (e.g. height, hair color, athletic ability, etc.)?
  • Is there any data on the difference between or sameness of people affecting the long-term success of committed relationships?
  • An evolutionary perspective would also be welcome. For example, is there any data that suggests that a tendency towards genetic diversity might drive such behavior (if in fact, it does exist)?

If you believe this question is too broad or needs to be clarified in any way, please make suggestions in the comments, and I will address them promptly. Thanks!

  • Personally, yes. I'm an energetic, lively, random person, and yet I prefer girls who are quiet and well-behaved.
    – Thursagen
    May 11 '11 at 23:47
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    I believe the answer is no, more-similar people attract. I will try to find the study, I believe I read it in an Evolutionary Psychology journal.
    – Uticensis
    May 12 '11 at 0:04
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    By the way, you asked your question wonderfully.
    – Uticensis
    May 12 '11 at 0:14
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    The great thing with sayings is that there's one for every situation to tingle our confirmation bias: Birds of a feather flock together.
    – Kit Sunde
    May 12 '11 at 1:53
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    As a point of interest, let's imagine you have two people who share several hobbies, who hold the same political and religious views, who share a sense of humour and like the same sort of art. But it turns out that one is an introvert and the other an extrovert. "Wow, opposites really do attract!"
    – Jivlain
    May 13 '11 at 3:03

The answer to your question is, for the most part, no: Opposites do not attract. Like-minded people attract; that is, the relationships they form are fuller and longer-lasting than when paired with an opposite-minded partner. This is despite the fact that people often claim, in surveys and when asked directly by interviewers, that they would like someone with personality characteristics different from their own; revealed preference and lived experience show that they really don't know what they want.

The article, Do People Know What They Want: A Similar or Complementary Partner?, by a certain Pieternel Dijkstra, reviews the hypotheses, and the research, better than I could give myself:

With regard to [] “relative” mate preferences two hypotheses have been presented. First, according to the “similarity-attraction hypothesis” individuals feel most attracted to potential partners who, in important domains, are similar to themselves (e.g., Lucas, Wendorf, and Imamoglu, 2004). Similar individuals are assumed to be attractive because they validate our beliefs about the world and ourselves and reduce the risk of conflicts (e.g., Morry and Gaines, 2005). Not surprisingly therefore, similarity between partners contributes to relationship satisfaction (e.g., Lutz-Zois, Bradley, Mihalik, and Moorman-Eavers, 2006). Because a happy and long-lasting intimate relationship contributes to both psychological and physical health (e.g., Berkman and Syme, 1994), similarity between partners increases their own and their offspring’s chances of survival by helping maintain (the quality of) the pair bond.

In contrast, according to the “complementarity hypothesis” individuals feel most attracted to potential partners who complement them, an assumption that reflects the saying that “opposites attract” (e.g., Antill, 1983). Complementary individuals are assumed to be so attractive because they enhance the likelihood that one’s needs will be gratified (e.g., De Raad and Doddema-Winsemius, 1992). For example, young women who lack economic resources may feel attracted to older men who have acquired economic resources and therefore may be good providers (Eagly and Wood, 1999). In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, one might argue that seeking a complementary mate, rather than a similar one, may help prevent inbreeding.

Ultimately, this is the punchline (emphasis mine):

Studies on mate selection have consistently found support for the “similarity attraction” hypothesis. Homogamy has been reported for numerous characteristics such as physical attractiveness (e.g., White, 1980), attachment style (e.g., Klohnen and Luo, 2003), political and religious attitudes (e.g., Luo and Klohnen, 2005), socio-economic background, level of education and IQ (e.g., Bouchard and McGue, 1981). In contrast, support for the “complementarity hypothesis” is much scarcer. Although many individuals occasionally feel attracted to “opposites”, attractions between opposites often do not develop into serious intimate relationships and, when they do, these relationships often end prematurely (Felmlee, 2001).

There is a particular area where people often do seek partners different from themselves, that's hot in the field of evolutionary psychology, and is extensively researched — that would the major histocompatability complex, or MHC, in human mate choice. The MHC is a genomic region which codes for protein receptors, MHC proteins, which are heavily involved in the immune system and autoimmunity; the body uses them as antigens so that T cells and NK-cells, our immune's system "policemen", can recognize foreign elements and differentiate them from "self". To protect against the great diversity of bacterial and viral invaders, the MHC genome region needs to be highly polymorphic; that means inbreeding at those loci (by mating with a "more-alike" partner) would be deleterious and evolutionarily disfavored because inbreeding homogenizes alleles, which in turns means that mating with an "alike" individual would decrease the recognition ability of their offspring to detect pathogens. Thus, research often finds that humans often favor dissimilar MHC alleles in their mates, which some researchers have hypothesized is mediated through olfaction. Here is the abstract of one such study finding these preferences:

Preferences for mates that possess genes dissimilar to one's own at the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a polymorphic group of loci associated with the immune system, have been found in mice, birds, fish, and humans. These preferences may help individuals choose genetically compatible mates and may adaptively function to prevent inbreeding or to increase heterozy-gosity and thereby immunocompetence of offspring. MHC-dissimilar mate preferences may influence the psychology of sexual attraction. We investigated whether MHC similarity among romantically involved couples (N = 48) predicted aspects of their sexual relationship. All women in our sample normally ovulated, and alleles at three MHC loci were typed for each person. As the proportion of MHC alleles couples shared increased, women's sexual responsivity to their partners decreased, their number of extrapair sexual partners increased, and their attraction to men other than their primary partners increased, particularly during the fertile phase of their cycles.

Other than that, I can't think of anything else; the rule is pretty much, like attracts like.

  • +1, especially for mentioning MHC dissimilarity. May 12 '11 at 11:11
  • +1 Thanks! I suppose the only downside to your great answer is that its speed and completeness may have kept people from even trying to post additional information. :]
    – Austin
    May 17 '11 at 21:49
  • I don't understand the conclusion of the last paragraph abstract. Would you mind explaining in kindergarten terms? :-)
    – Joze
    Jun 16 '15 at 10:50

However, at least for personality (in this case Big 5, extraversion, neuroticism etc.) there is evidence, that it is actually not similarity that drives relationship satisfaction.

Dyrenforth et al. (2010) who used a rather new methodology called Actor-Partner-Interaction-Models didn't find effects of similarity. Instead they find actor effects (your personality matters for how satisfied you are in your relationship) and partner effects (your partner's personality matters for how satisfied you are in your relationship).

There are different ways to assess similarity (which the article addresses), but the article sidesteps homogamy and the possibility that people who are in relationships (the population, not the couple) may, by chance (pick any two), be more alike than people who are not in relationships. This is plausible, however, because some personality traits make you less likely to enter and stay in relationships (emotional instability/neuroticism).

Three very large, nationally representative samples of married couples were used to examine the relative importance of 3 types of personality effects on relationship and life satisfaction: actor effects, partner effects, and similarity effects. Using data sets from Australia (N = 5,278), the United Kingdom (N = 6,554), and Germany (N = 11,418) provided an opportunity to test whether effects replicated across samples. Actor effects accounted for approximately 6% of the variance in relationship satisfaction and between 10% and 15% of the variance in life satisfaction. Partner effects (which were largest for Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability) accounted for between 1% and 3% of the variance in relationship satisfaction and between 1% and 2% of the variance in life satisfaction. Couple similarity consistently explained less than .5% of the variance in life and relationship satisfaction after controlling for actor and partner effects.

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