Most of us have experienced it at least once: you meet someone, and within minutes you know you are going to be friends – or more. Often, discovering shared opinions sparks the connection; you might find you both love the paintings of Paula Rego, or that you had exactly the same reaction to today’s headlines or that you both hate the music at this party.
Whatever it is, you strike up a conversation and within minutes you’re exchanging recommendations, riffing off each other’s jokes and making up stories together. Before you’ve even found out what the other person does for a living or where they’re from, you’ve established a feeling of mutual connection. Your conversation partner just seems to get it – and get you. You’ve clicked.
But why, exactly? The secret to what makes our conversations with some people so magnetic and telling, while others fade in passing, may be not just with whom we’re talking – but what we’re talking about.
Many of our best conversations, whether with a new acquaintance or an old friend, are about the world around us rather than ourselves. They are also often the conversations that bring us closer to each other. Columbia University psychologist Maya Rossignac-Milon calls this “making sense of the world together”. And she thinks it is the secret of good relationships.
Experiencing shared reality
In the field of relationship psychology, most research has focused, as you might expect, on how people feel about each other. What those studies often miss, says Rossignac-Milon, is the third partner in any relationship: shared reality.
Rossignac-Milon cites the writer CS Lewis, who remarked that, “What draws people to be friends is that they see the same truth. They share it.” In a long-term relationship, she says that sense of shared reality can become like a single lens through which the partners filter the world around them; minds meet, synchronise and merge.
Along with her co-researcher E Tory Higgins, Rossignac-Milon developed a questionnaire that measures the extent to which couples experience shared reality. A researcher asks each partner to rate their agreement or disagreement with statements such as, “We frequently think of things at the exact same time” or “Through discussions we often arrive at a joint perspective”. Using this method, Rossignac-Milon has found evidence that people who experience more shared reality with their partner also feel more committed to each other. Indeed, on the days when couples experience more of this cognitive merging, they also feel emotionally closer.
Rossignac-Milon’s research challenges the conventional wisdom about new relationships: that we are mostly attracted to people who are similar to us. According to Paul Eastwick, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis who studies close relationships, “What is especially fascinating about Dr Rossignac-Milon’s work on shared reality is that it serves as a reminder that similarity is often a thing that two people create or discover together in the moment. It wasn’t ‘there’ on paper before the interaction took place.”
Although we’re encouraged to look for people who meet our preferences, shared reality theory suggests we may not know what our preferences are until we meet the other person. Many online dating sites are designed around the principle that if you can gather enough data on an individual, you figure out a perfect match. If a new relationship is an act of mutual creativity, however, the right match may be very hard to predict.
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