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Is Knowledge Power?: Familiarity and Liking in Relationship Initiation

Some say that knowledge is power. Although knowledge in skills such as physics, literature, history, or foreign languages can help you look smart and win on Jeopardy (speaking of which, do you want to hear me talk about history in Russian?), it is less clear whether having knowledge of other people can help you “win” in social situations. In other words, can knowledge about another person lead you to like this person more? Social psychological research has evidence that familiarity may lead to either more and less liking, depending on the context.

For about 40 years now, social psychologists have believed that familiarity is one of the pillars of liking in close relationships.1 Chances are, when you go on a first date, you two will talk to get to know one another (or these days, text your friends about how “hawt” your date is, “lol”). Most of the time, you will like each other more as you learn about one another. Likewise, with the help of familiarity, you can establish similarity, which has long been considered a strong predictor of liking.2 Some researchers, however, have recently challenged this idea.3

In a series of experiments, Norton and colleagues showed that knowledge of another can lead to less liking. In one experiment, for example, the more adjectives that participants saw describing a hypothetical person (such as ambitious or talkative; unfortunately for many, they did not include "swag"), the less the participants liked this hypothetical person. The researchers concluded that people (on average) like others less as they gain information about them due to a “lure of ambiguity” that stems from little knowledge of the other. In other words, the less we know about someone, the more similarity we assume to have with this person, which leads us to like this person. Once you bring in knowledge of the other, however, that lure of ambiguity subsides and we like the person less (presumably because we learn that perhaps we aren’t so similar after all).

Other researchers, however, demonstrated that people may actually like others more as they learn more about them. For instance, in one study, the more online chats participants shared with an unacquainted other (which afforded them more information about one another), the more liking the two partners reported.4 Likewise, in an experiment that my colleagues and I conducted, participants engaged in two conversations in which only one person talked while the other listened. So, if Christie and Bridget were talking, Christie would only talk in the first interaction while Bridget asked her questions (and thus listened); the two would switch conversational roles in a second interaction. We found that after the first interaction, listeners liked their partners more than did the talkers, presumably because listening gave people a chance to learn about the other, which helped to establish liking. Interestingly, when participants switched conversational roles, the differences between the original talker and listener disappeared; the original talkers (who became listeners) were able to “catch up” in their knowledge of the other, which increased their liking of the partner. Thus, when you combine listening and talking, both have a chance to learn about the other and establish that fuzzy feeling of liking.

It seems that there is evidence that familiarity serves as an accelerator for liking in some cases and a brake for liking in others. Perhaps some people are turned off by specific pieces of information more than others, especially if the “discloser” is more or less crazy. Still, you cannot avoid learning more about a person during the acquaintanceship process. Although there is some evidence to the contrary, chances are that you will like a new person when you know more about him or her as well.

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1Berscheid, E., & Reis, H. T. (1998). Attraction and close relationships. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 193–281). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

2Montoya, R. M., Horton, R. S., & Kirchner, J. (2008). Is actual similarity necessary for   attraction? A meta-analysis of actual and perceived similarity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 889–922.

3Norton, M. I., Frost, J. H., & Ariely, D. (2007). Less is more: The lure of ambiguity, or why familiarity breeds contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 97–105.

4Reis, H. T., Maniaci, M. R., Caprariello, P. A., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2011a). Familiarity does indeed promote attraction in live interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 557–570.

5Sprecher, S., Treger, S., & Wondra, J. D. (in press). Effects of self-disclosure role on liking, closeness, and other impressions in get-acquainted interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Stan Treger, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Stan is interested in (1) interpersonal connectedness and closeness; (2) attraction and relationship initiation; and (3) sexuality. He has published on infidelity, sexual attitudes, and women’s sexuality, and is currently investigating affective forecasting, humor, and transactive memory in close relationships.

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