lecture outline (liking)

Lecture 11: Liking
So far we have dealt with various serious topics, from the social
psychology inspired by concentration camp commandants to the
the more topical isuse of violence at football matches. Now we will
turn to the apparently more trivial issue of relationships, this week
the topic of liking, next week the topic of loving. I say apparently
more trivial because actually our relationships with people are one
of the most important elements in our lives. Good relationships
make us healthy as well as happy: according to some recent work
by Goleman (1992), the more University room mates like each
other, the fewer colds they get - more significantly the chances of
surviving for more than 1 year after a heart attack are twice as
high among people who get emotional support from 2 or more
people. And there is also a serious social problem lurking behind
the topic of liking and loving - the problem of the huge increase in
divorce and family break-up.
This week I’ll describe a very individualistic approach to this issue.
This is essentially the traditional approach that you can find
described in Aronson, chapter 8 and many other texts: You'll get
some insight into current thinking if you have a look at Duck's
article in The Psychologist, 8(2), 60-63, which provides a good
counterweight to this work.
Let's begin this week with a simple question 'Why do people like
each other' and see where that takes us. If we ask people they
mostly give answers in terms of the other person, like 'Julie is
warm, kindly and amusing' - what this ignores is ourselves. A more
accurate answer might be 'I like Julie because of how I feel when
I'm with her' - or, put another way, we like people who reward us.
This reward principle can be stated quite simply: that we should
minimise costs and maximise rewards. From this perspective,
liking and friendship are just a form of social exchange - as La
Rochefoucauld (1665) put it 300 years ago "Friendship is just a
scheme for the mutual exchange of personal advantages and
favours whereby self-esteem may profit".
The perspective of exchange theory is that of the marketplace,
where goods and services are traded. And so the simple economic
theory of what determines transactions in a market can be applied
to social transactions too. Just as an economist may talk about the
price of a good, so too does the social exchange theorist talk
about the price of, say, love. Gifts are not given - they are
Let's take an example of a social 'market' consisting of four
friends, Dave, Pete, Bev and Sue. According to social exchange
theorists, the amount of time and trouble that Dave invests in the
other three will depend upon the rewards and costs involved in
interacting with them. Pete is witty, energetic and plays badminton
at the same standard as Dave. Bev is easy on the eye and a good
cook. And Sue is extremely clever and able to help Dave with his
work. Each then is potentially rewarding to Dave. But we need to
take into account the costs of interaction as well as the benefits.
Pete can be manic and an evening with him is risky. Bev is boring.
And Sue lives some way away so seeing her involves a drive. So
Dave's decision to spend time with any of these three will depend
upon his calculation of the profit (that is rewards minus costs)
involved in each potential interaction.
Now it is obvious that the rewards and costs can consist of all
kinds of things and that, in the social world unlike the economic
world, there is no common scale like money. The value of all
interactions then is subjectively defined and fluctuates from one
time to another. Food is more valuable than a book when you're
hungry; cleverness is more valuable than wit if you need help with
a late assignment. Diminishing marginal utility probably applies too
- just as you value your first apple more than your third, and your
third apple more than your fifth, so you will be value you first
evening in the week with a particular individual more than your
This means that we cannot really quantify rewards and costs. This
makes testing social exchange theory very difficult (though not
impossible and we will come on to some examples in a moment),
but it doesn't necessarily undermine its usefulness as an
There are probably two phases in the calculation of rewards and
costs. One is the estimation phase, the other the sampling phase.
In estimation, we have to guess what the rewards and costs of a
particular interaction might be. In sampling, we actually take part in
the an interaction and sample the rewards and costs in earnest.
Bev may turn out to be even more boring than Dave remembers
and produce awful food - Sue may be witty as well as clever. What
happens then? According to the Social exchange model, we
always have one eye on the market; that is, we have a comparison
level for alternatives. This is what we see as the profits potentially
available in another interaction. So if the comparison level for
alternatives appears more profitable than what we are actually
getting, we will leave one interaction (or one relationship) and start
a new one.
So far I have talked about maximising profits only from Dave's
perspective. But whilst Dave is making his calculations, the others
are making theirs. Maybe Dave is a ghastly boring social
psychologist with a penchant for talking about exchange theory.
This means that social interaction is a compromise, just as the
prices arrived at in bargaining are a compromise. Not only must
we maximise our own outcomes but we must ensure that our cointeractants are also adequatly rewarded, else they might go
Using an economic approach to understanding social life seems
callous. Normally we talk about liking our friends and having things
in common with people - we don't think about profiting from our
interactions with others. But a social exchange theorist, unlike say
a researcher using an ethogenic approach, who would treat
respondents as experts on their own behaviour, would probably
dismiss our accounts of our interactions as just rhetoric and our
talk of liking, loving, getting bored etc, just our way of talking about
rewards and costs.
So much for the bare bones of the exchange approach. Let's
consider just one example of this in practice. This is unusual in
that it involved a social psychological analysis of historical data.
Guttentag and Secord (1984) provide an analysis of love in
historical periods. According to them, the scarcity or abundance of
men and women in society has varied greatly over historical time
and this variation has had widespread social consequences. Men
and women need each other for companionship, love, pleasure
and procreation: if either men or women are in short supply, their
value will increase for members of the opposite sex.
Guttentag and Secord have used population data from a variety of
cultures and historical periods to illustrate their argument. I will
briefly describe just two, one involving an excess number of men
(the rise and fall of courtly love in medieval Europe), the other
involving an excess number of women.
In France and Germany in the 12th and 13th centuries courtly love
was practised among the upper classes. Courtly love stressed the
spiritual adoration of women. To woo a maiden, the lover sang
ballades that were characterised by restraint, tenderness and
pledges of eternal dedication. The lady remained aloof and
unattainable. Although she occasionally granted a suitor physical
favours, she respected him most if he behaved in a refined and
courteous manner. So the suitor would undergo considerable selfdenial to gain her attention.
G & S suggest that the reason for this passion and denial was the
social conditions of the time, specifically the small number of
women of high social rank. The need for a large class of armed
knights gave the opportunity for upward social mobility so there
was an excess of noble and aspirant noble men. When the nobility
closed its ranks later in the 13th century, the ratio of noble men to
noble women became more equal, courtly love disappeared and a
rough anti-feminism took over.
The second example concerns misogyny in the late medieval
period. Between 1000 and 1200, the European population grew
rapidly but, apparently, there was a marked change in the sex
ratio, with a considerable increase in the number of women.
Consistent with the exchange theory perspective, this excess of
women drove down the bride-price characteristic of the earlier
medieval period. But, starting around 1100, the increasing surplus
of women steadily eroded the marriage rights of women - for
example, the wife's right to a portion of the household property on
the death of her husband was reduced. Herlihy's (1974) analysis
of thousands of marriage agreements shows that bride price
slowly declined and then it was followed by a rise in the dowry to
be paid. This dowry increased much during the 13th and 14th
centuries and finally became so large as to provoke Dante's
comment (in the Divine Comedy) that the birth of daughters struck
terror into their father's hearts.
That men had to be paid to marry is not the only indication of the
low value of women in this society. The literature of this period has
exactly the kind of themes you would expect - stressing brief
sexual encounters, licentiousness, reluctance of men to enter into
commitment and some disparagement of marriage as an
So an exchange theory can provide an explanation of some
historical data. It can also be used to interpret some of the
empirical research into liking - so lets look at some of this.
One of the most powerful predictors of whether 2 people are
friends is their sheer proximity to each other. It has long been
know that most people marry someone who lived or worked within
walking distance. The classic demonstration of the importance of
proximity is Festinger et al. (1950) who studied the development of
friendship formation in student apartments. Students were
allocated randomly to rooms on arrival but after a few months,
when asked to name their two closest friends, 2/3 lived in the
same building and 2/3 of these on the same floor. A more recent
and simple demonstration of this effect is the work of Segal. He
studied a police academy where new recruits were assigned
rooms and seats in the classroom on the basis of alphabetical
order. So trainee policemen called Adams and Alton would spend
more time in close proximity than trainee policemen named Adams
and Young. When they were asked to name their closest friend on
the course, he found that they tended to be close together
One way of interpreting this finding is to say that if we make the
reasonable assumption that on average the reward value of others
was equal, it was the low cost of interacting with neighbours which
lead to liking. Or, could it be that it is simply a matter of
opportunity? (this seems unlikely as in the Festinger study, most
people liked the person who lived one door away more than those
who were 2 doors away). So why should proximity encourage
liking and affection?
Part of the answer is that, contrary to the proverb, familiarity does
not breed contempt - rather familiarity leads to liking. Mere
exposure to all sorts of stimuli - nonsense syllables, Chinese
characters, pieces of music, faces - increases peoples ratings of
them. Do you think the Turkish words nansoma, saricik and
afworbu mean something better or worse than the words iktitaf,
biwojni and kadirga? Students tested in experiments by Zajonc
preferred whichever of these words they had seen most frequently.
And remarkably enough, people also prefer the letter than appear
in their own name - and those that appear frequently in their
language. French students rate capital W as their least favorite
letter - and it is also the least frequent in French.
A very reasonable objection to this so-called 'mere exposure'
effect, is that when you become familiar with some people you
dislike them - and that some stimuli certainly lose their appeal as
you get to know them - a new song which initially grows on you
can become boring. And with stimuli that are boring or negative
at the outset mere exposure does not breed liking.
However, as a broad generalization, the idea that familiarity
breeds liking works quite well. We even like ourselves the way we
are used to seeing ourselves. There is a neat experiment by Mita
et al (1977) who photographed people and then showed them the
actual picture and a mirror image of it - asked which picture they
prefered most opted for the mirror image, which is of course the
image that they were used to seeing. When their close friends
were asked which they prefered, they opted for the true picture which is the one they were used to seeing.
Myers (1994) gives a remarkable anectdotal example of this.
Apparently there was an election in the states for a state court,
where the sitting judge, one Keith Callow, was challenged by an
unknown attorney, one Charles Johnson, simply on the principal
that judges outght to be challenged. Neither man campaigned and
the media ignored the contest. On election day the two names
appeared on the ballot paper without any identification - the result
was a victory to Johnson by 52% to 47%. The ousted judge
offered the explanation that there were a lot more Johnsons than
Callows - and he may well have been right. Voters may just have
preferred the familiar sounding name.
Bear in mind that proximity provides the opportunity for people to
interact, but it is the nature of that interaction that will determine
the level of liking. Most interactions are positive because people
manage the impressions that they present to others - it is also true
that people usually have a number of things in common with
those who live or work with them - which probably explains Segal's
alphabet finding.
A kind of follow-up to the Festinger study was carried out in a
housing estate in CA. Residents had to list the three people in the
complex they liked best - and the three that they disliked the most.
61% of the most liked lived in the same building - but so did 55%
of the most disliked. Those who were disliked were those who had
noisy parties, let their dogs foul the pavements and so on. Which
makes the point, again, that mere proximity is not enough.
If we move beyond proximity, we can ask 'what are people looking
for in a friend? Do they look for someone with GSOH (as the
lonely hearts adverts have it), someone who is sincere, who has a
good character and so on? We all know that beauty doesn't
matter. But though we profess this belief, in fact there is a vast
amount of research showing that physical attractiveness does
matter - good looks are a great asset (and I use the economic
term deliberately).
One classic demonstration of this effect is a large study carried out
by Hatfield et al (1966). They matched over 750 first year students
for a welcome-week computer dance. The researchers gave each
individual personality, aptitude tests and attitude scales but then
matched the couples randomly except for one constraint - they
made sure that the man was taller than the woman. On the night
of the dance, the couples danced and talked for a couple of hours
and then, in a break, had to evaluate their partner. So the question
here was what predicted liking? was it the similarity of attitudes,
whether the partner was extraverted or bright or what? The
researchers examined a long list of possible variables but
essentially only one thing mattered - how physically attractive (as
rated by the experimenters) the partner was. This applied to both
men and women. The students said, of course, that they would
like their partners to be intelligent - but this did not correlate at all
with their preferences.
Now, you may think that this is just a matter of first impressions
and that physical attractiveness cannot always, or in the long term
be that important. But remarkably enough, physically attractive
people tend to have more prestigious jobs, earn more money and
describe themselves as happier. Rosznell (1990),for instance,
looked at the attractiveness of a national sample of Canadians and
had interviewers rate them on a simple 5 point scale. She found
that for each additional scale unit of rated attractiveness, people
earned, on average, an additional $2k a p.a. A rather similar study
by Frieze (1991) involved rating photos of over 700 MBA students,
again on a simple 5 point scale. Here for each additional scale unit
of rated attractiveness people earned an additional $2.3k.
This seems extra-ordinary until you remember that attractiveness
will have some impact on the first impressions gained in job
interviews - and that studies show that attractive children get more
attention and are treated better by others - so probably have
higher confidence and self-esteem as a result.
There is a consensus about who is physically attractive (which
seems to be the case) and there is, to put it crudely, a
marketplace for attractiveness. If that is true, it is clear that not
everyone can end up paired off with someone stunningly attractive
- so how do people pair off?
There is quite a lot of research to suggest that what happens is
that people pair off with others who are as attractive as them. A
number of studies have found a strong correspondence between
the attractiveness of husbands and wives and of people going out
together. This matching phenomenon is interesting. When
choosing who to approach, again people usually approach
someone whose attractiveness matches their own. In one study of
dating couples, those who were most similar in physical
attractiveness were the most likely, 9 months on, to still be
together. And, as we might expect, married couples are more
closely matched than casual dating partners.
Now if one individual in a couple is not as attractive as the other,
we should find that the less attractive has compensatory qualities.
Each partner brings assets to the marketplace (again note the
exchange metaphor) and the value of the assets creates a fair
match. Lonely hearts adverts exemplify this exchange of assets there have been a few analyses of theses (for example, by
Koestner 1988) and these make it clear that men typically offer
status and seek attractiveness - women usually do the reverse. So
we find 'attractive, bright women, 38, slender, seeks warm
professional male' versus 'handsome barrister, successful, seek
very pretty professional lady for a significant relationship'.
What is attractive?
So far I have described liking and friendship in terms of exchange
processes and stressed the assets, one of which is physical
attractiveness, that people bring to this relationship market. But
attractiveness is not an objective quality. There is though some
agreement about it - attractive faces do not deviate too far from
the average and symetry is important. Digitised composite faces
are rated as better than 96% of individual faces and studies of
those who have had cosmetic surgery have shown that this does
change perceptions of attractiveness and personal characteristics.
Interestingly enough, a study of girls who had orthodontic
treatment also showed this effect, even though the photos used
had the mouth closed.
Those who are physically attractive are also seen to have other
desirable characteristics, such as kindness, competence, more
likely to succeed and so on (the 'what is beautiful is good'
phenomenon). Eagly et al (1991) have reviewed a large number
of studies on this issue and what is striking about this is that it
holds at all ages, starting with infancy. For instance, Karraker
found that prettier infants are considered to be more sociable and
competent than poach-egg look-a-likes. The good news is that,
nontheless, we also perceive likable people as attractive. There is
evidence that the more in love someone is with their partner, the
more physically attractive s/he finds him/here. And the more in
love people are, the less attractive they find all others of the
opposite sex. As Rowland (1990) put it "the grass may be greener
on the other side, but happy gardeners are less likely to notice".
Nearly all of the studies mentionned so far have been concerned
only with first impressions and the very early stages of a
relationship. It is worth asking whether attractive people are
favoured in day-to-day interactions with others.
A study by Reis et al (1982) tried to answer this question. The
participants in their study were roughly 100 undergraduates who
had been rated for their attractiveness and then kept a daily record
of their social activities for a fortnight. They also had to fill our
questionnaires which dealt with things like their self-esteem,
assertiveness in social situations and so on.
Their findings are interesting and slightly surprising. Compared to
unattractive males, attractive males spent more time with females
and less time with males, interacted with a greater number of
females, had more interactions with females and spent longer
interacting with them. Attractive males were more likely to initiate
an interaction with a women and felt that there was a greater
degree of intimacy during their interactions. But no such
relationship was found between the men's physical attractiveness
and the quantity and quality of their social interactions. Attractive
women were actually less likely to initiate an interaction than
unattractive females and they reported that their interactions with
females were more satisfying. They were also more distrustful of
Reis' interpretation of this is that attractive men are more socially
active because they are more assertive and self-confident.
Attractive women, on the other hand, are not more socially active
because they are unassertive. Men are reluctant to approach them
as they assume (rightly or wrongly) that attractive women will
reject them.
Liking and friendship.
You must not think, from the research described so far, its concern
with physical and other assets, its emphasis on individuals seeking
what is best for them, that social psychologists have ignored more
fundamental issues in relationships – these will be dealt with next
lecture. But two other topics which, though concerned with less
superficial issues, have also been dealt with from within an
exchange approach. The first is self-disclosure - the second is
attitude and opinion similarity.
Self-disclosure is the revealing of private aspects of the self,
including experiences, desires, fears, fantasies and so on, to other
people. It is obviously very important in the development of
relationships and, some researchers claim, important in the
maintenance of long-term relationships.
In one of the earliest studies of self-disclosure, Jourard found that
the more intimate information that had been disclosed to
someone, the more that person had disclosed back. And -the
more self-disclosure there was, the greater the liking. But why
The evidence suggests that the more an individual is disclosed to
during an experiment, the more that they like the discloser. And
the more that someone is disclosed to, the more that they will
disclose back. So we see reciprocity - you disclose to me and I'll
disclose to you. And it seems as if disclosing to someone is one
way of giving that person something valuable (a reward) - and we
already know that being rewarded leads to liking.
Finally, I want to look at the importance of similarity. We know
from a number of studies that people's initial liking (after one week
of living in shared accommodation) does not predict very well their
ultimate liking for each other. But their similarity does. How similar
people's attitudes and opinions are is crucial in predicting
friendship. If others have similar opinions, we feel rewarded
because we presume that they like us in return - moreover, those
who share our views help to validate them. But friendship is a
delicate matter and Tesser (1989) has gathered evidence that
students pick as friends other students who overall are about as
accomplished as them, but whose accomplishments are in
different domains. This maximises their chances of celebrating
accomplishments whilst staying away from envy.
So how useful is the kind of exchange approach that I have
outlined? Well, it seems to me that it is a fair starting point -
rewards and costs probably are highly relevant to liking and to
social interaction generally. But since rewards and costs are
idiosyncratic, this approach has limited predictive power.
Furthermore, the approach is limited when the basic assumptions
do not hold - for instance, when people have limited choices in
their relationships because of social custom or values. In cultures
other than our own, which are not so consumer oriented,
exchange theory may well have very limited applicability: it is no
accident that exchange theory (and the vast majority of the very
research that I have described) emerged in America. But even in
our society we recognise constraints on personal choice: one
being the generalised belief in equity or fairness in personal
relationships. Perhaps more importantly, exchange theory seems
to impose a view of the world on people: some people may
construe social interaction in economic terms but others may well
not. And it is really the individual experiences of the social world
that we need to understand - which we will come back to next
week, with the topic of love.