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Volumes of research in psychology have shown that similarity and attraction are positively linearly associated (Herbst, Gaertner, & Insko, 2003) – that is, people are attracted to others who share similar attitudes – and that similarity is a good predictor of attraction (Norton, Frost, & Ariely, 2007). As cited by Herbst et. al. (2003), this association has been called the law of attraction. We assume that similarity is established by acquiring information about a person, for one cannot say that one is similar to a person about whom one knows nothing. However, in the state of ambiguity, the lack or absence of information about a person, people in fact assume similarity with others (Byrne, Clore, & Smeaton, 1986; Norton et. al., 2007; Smeaton, Byrne, & Murnen, 1989). Additionally, the studies reviewed by Byrne et. al. (1986) indicate that even negatively valenced individuals (e.g., as in a study Byrne et. al. cited, a black stranger to highly prejudiced white students) are assumed by perceivers to be relatively similar to themselves. Norton et. al. (2007) explained this through the person positivity bias (Sears, 1983), citing that this bias predisposes people to hold an optimistic view of another person about whom little is known. Smeaton et. al. (1989), on the other hand, suggested that the assumed-similarity phenomenon is due to the false consensus effect, which is the tendency to overestimate the commonness of attitudes and behavior (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). Whichever the reason, Norton et. al. proposed that ambiguity leads to (assumed) similarity that, in turn, leads to liking. Eventually, though, ambiguity will be resolved through the acquisition of more information, and this may lead to decreased liking due to the cascading nature of dissimilarity – once one has encountered evidence of dissimilarity to the other person, subsequent information will be “interpreted as further evidence of dissimilarity” (Norton et. al., 2007, p. 100).
The greater weight of negative information
Norton et. al. proposed that “initial information actually changes the meaning of subsequently encountered information” (p. 100). This should be especially true for negative information (i.e., dissimilarity) because, as Smeaton et. al. (1989) cited, negative information is unusual – since people have already assumed similarity with a person, information that confirms this initial assumption (i.e., evidence of similarity) will be relatively unimportant as compared to information that disconfirms the initial assumption (i.e., evidence of dissimilarity). In studies reviewed by Pratto and John (1991), people give more weight to events that have negative implications for them; more specifically, in impression formation, “negative information is weighted more heavily than positive information” (p. 380). Pratto and John (1991) provided one possible underlying mechanism for this process, and they termed it automatic vigilance: negative information attracts more attention, even without people knowing, or intending, it. The results of Experiment 2 of Pratto and John’s study showed that because negative information attracts more intention, it is better remembered than positive information. Therefore, liking will be more heavily influenced by negative information (dissimilarity) than by positive (similarity) information because besides disconfirming initial assumptions, negative information is more available (Tversky & Kahneman, 1992) and therefore better remembered.
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