Human relationships are complicated and unpredictable. Or are they? People are drawn to those like them…but they’re also drawn to those that are different. These two phenomenons are called heterophily and homophily. Homophily is “the degree to which pairs of individuals who interact are similar with respect to certain attributes, such as beliefs, values, education, social status etc,” according to researchers Rogers and Bhowmik who studied this phenomenon in 1958 with regards to human communication. And heterophily is “the degree to which pairs of individuals who interact are different with respect to certain attributes,” or in other words it’s the idea that opposites attract.
Think of a high school cafeteria, tables separated by social cliques: jocks, nerds, artsy kids, musicians, etc. The cafeteria scene from Tina Fey’s hit movie Mean Girls displays this idea as the camera swoops around each table while Lindsay Lohan narrates which each lunch table clique is. While the idea might seem like a trite, even superficial social phenomenon exclusive to high school lunch tables, it showcases homophily, that people are drawn to those similar in dress, interests, experiences, or values, etc. The jocks may like to talk and play sports, the nerds may enjoy studying with each other, and so on. And homophily is certainly not exclusive to high school. Similar people may find solace in each other and in their similarities, in every social circumstance imaginable. In a world filled with differences, it can be important to find company that reminds someone of oneself, to show them that they’re not alone, and to relate to another person.
Rogers and Bhowmik believe homophily is most natural. They are looking through the lens of communication, as communication is the core of human relationships, and its efficiency is based on various factors such as the parties’ values, beliefs, interests and language. People who communicate most effortlessly typically have the strongest connections in one or more of the aforementioned factors. Rogers and Bhowmik say that “when a person is presented with a number of choices of individuals to interact with, there will be a tendency to choose individuals who are like themselves. They further suggest that this is because ‘more effective communication occurs when source and receiver are homophilous.’” The jocks and nerds in the above example likely have the best communication with their respective groups; they probably have the most similar life perspectives, values, and understand the nuances of their cliques or subcultures. They may have unique slang or ways of speaking which also leads to their greater communication within their group.
On the contrary, heterophily is the philosophy that people look to build relationships with others that are different. This is certainly true to an extent; some people click with friends and romantic partners who complement each other— perhaps one partner is more of a jock and one more of a nerd. Rogers and Bhowmik assert that “heterophilous communication is typically ineffective, driven by empathy of the individuals involved. The empathy is needed to project themselves into the role of another person.” In other words, they think heterophily is unsustainable because eventually the two people will struggle to communicate and understand each other. When this happens they will likely cease to get along. The relationship only worked in the first place because the two people strove to empathize with each other. But empathy may not be enough to support the relationship forever, without the similarities at play in a homophilous relationship such as experiences, values and beliefs.
While homophily and heterophily are real phenomenons, it’s important to remember that people are multi-faceted, and while they may seem one way on the outside they could be someone else inside. Also, simplifying people to their stereotypes or more superficial traits is always an incomplete story. It’s hard to say exactly when two people are more similar or more different, and is likely something the individual people can feel and intuit. Think of your own relationships. How are you similar to or different from these people?