Do opposites really attract?

Can two crazy kids from opposite worlds make a go of it?

For seven years, "American Idol" hosts Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell disagreed, often bitterly, on the show's performances. But could such squabbles mask love? That's what romantic comedies would have us believe. How often have you seen a couple interact like oil and water the entire film, only to realize that they're fated to be together? In pop culture, we see princes marry scullery maids and Harvard lawyers fall for the mechanics who fix their cars. Even Abdul, in her pre-"Idol" days, found love with the animated MC Skat Kat in the video for her 1989 hit "Opposites Attract." Despite the fact that they had nothing in common, their relationship worked.

Unfortunately, the world of science hasn't been able to prove the accuracy of these Paula Abdul lyrics. Instead, researchers find that we tend to seek out people who think and act like us. We may even be seeking our own mirror image. In a 2003 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, respondents ranked how important certain traits were in a romantic partner, and then they ranked the extent to which they themselves exhibited that trait [source: Angier]. If people thought they were attractive, they wanted a similarly attractive partner. If people thought they were wealthy, they wanted a partner of equivalent status. If people weren't close to their family, they didn't seek out a person who was.


A 2005 study from the University of Iowa found that personal resemblance beyond these obvious markers of wealth or beauty matter more, though. Researchers assessed attitude and personality similarities between newlywed couples. An attitude similarity might be having the same religion or personal belief system, and personality traits were defined as qualities like anxiety, agreeableness, extraversion and conscientiousness. As it turns out, those couples that had more in common personality-wise, as opposed to attitude-wise, were more likely to be very happy and satisfied with their marriages [source: American Psychological Association]. The tricky thing about this finding, though, is the researchers claim that these personality traits take much longer to reveal themselves than attitude similarities do. That means that it may be possible for a heavily tattooed man to find love with a never-been-inked gal -- if they're both the same level of neurotic.

In a 2009 study of online daters, respondents claimed to want someone who represented their opposite, thinking it would balance them out. But even though they said they wanted someone different, the people they contacted actually had very similar personalities to their own [source: Law]. But there does appear to be one instance when it pays to look for someone different from you, and we'll discuss it on the next page.



Sniffing Out Different Gene Pools

Smells like love (and cheese)
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images

If you're a woman who likes sleeping in a significant other's T-shirt, there's a reason for that. Rather than kissing a lot of frogs, scientists say that women have to sniff a lot of men to find their perfect match. What does the nose know? It may be able to smell men with completely different gene pools.

In several studies, researchers have had women smell men's used T-shirts and rank them according to how attractive the smell is. In the past, women have indicated that the most pleasurable shirts belong to men with different major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes than they do, so scientists believe that women can subconsciously smell a man's genes [source: Kaplan].


MHC genes, which affect the immune system, have been determined to play a role in everything from sexual attraction to marital happiness. For example, in 2007, Christine Garvar-Apgar of the University of New Mexico conducted a study of the satisfaction in 48 heterosexual marriages. She found that women who had vastly different MHC genes from their husband's were more likely to have happy marriages and to report fidelity in their relationships. However, women who had similar MHC genes were more likely to be less sexually responsive to their partners and more likely to have had or considered an affair [source: Kaplan]. These adulterous longings even seemed to sync up with MHC correlation: If the couple had 50 percent of the MHC genes in common, the woman had a 50 percent chance of cheating [source: Kaplan]. MHC genes played no role in a man's happiness or wandering eye.

Women may be seeking out opposite gene pools in order to give their unborn children the best immunological head start possible. Since MHC genes play such a large role in immune function, a child's body with many different MHC genes will have a greater ability to detect and ward off invading cell bodies that may carry disease.

However, when women take birth control pills, it can affect their sense of smell. In a 2008 study, Stewart Craig Roberts of the University of Newcastle found that women on the pill tended to select mates that had similar MHC genes [source: Bryner]. This may be because birth control tricks a woman's body into thinking that it's pregnant, so that a woman is subconsciously sniffing for a relative that will help her care for her nonexistent baby. Researchers hypothesized that women could meet, fall in love and marry a man, only to have the relationship crumble once they went off birth control and got a whiff of the guy's true smell.

Still looking for your opposite gene pool? Check out more articles on love on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Psychological Association. "Do Opposites Attract or Do Birds of a Feather Flock Together?" ScienceDaily. Feb. 15, 2005. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Angier, Natalie. "Opposites Attract? Not in Real Life." New York Times. July 8, 2003. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Brody, Jane E. "Making it work when opposites attract." New York Times. Nov. 23, 1994. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Bryner, Jeanna. "The Pill Makes Women Pick Bad Mates." LiveScience. Aug. 12, 2008. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Hunt-Grubbe, Charlotte. "DNA dating: has science unlocked the secret of a perfect match?" The Sunday Times. May 24, 2009. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Kaplan, Matt. "Don't pair up with matching genes." New Scientist. Jan. 5, 2007. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Law, Sally. "The Truth on Whether 'Opposites Attract.'" LiveScience. March 27, 2009. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Lawrence, Jean. "Do Opposites Attract?" WebMD. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Mason, Betsy. "Opposites attract for cockatiels too." New Scientist. Aug. 15, 2006. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • "Opposites Attract, but Do They Marry?" WebMD. Feb. 14, 2005. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Sample, Ian. "Gene research finds opposites do attract." The Guardian. May 24, 2009. (Dec. 1, 2009)
  • Warner, Jennifer. "Do Opposites Attract? Not Really." WebMD. June 30, 2003. (Dec. 1, 2009)