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Conventional wisdom says people are drawn together when they’re most similar. But how you navigate the world together might actually be what ignites the spark.M

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.

The third partner in any relationship is shared reality

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.

Here, Rossignac-Milon explored a hypothesis: when a couple feels like they have a strong sense of shared reality, and that sense is undermined in some way, they will feel an urge to restore it. She and her team invited couples into the laboratory, asked them to fill in the questionnaire on shared reality, and then presented each individual with the same sensory experiences: foods to taste, pictures to look at. The respondents rated their experiences. The couples were then given some false feedback on their answers: half were told that they experienced the sensory world in the same way as each other, while the other half were informed that they did so differently.

The couples were then given the opportunity to chat about some unrelated images, as the researchers observed them, coding their interactions. The couples who came into the lab with a strong sense of shared reality and then had it undermined made a tangible effort to reaffirm it, finishing each other’s sentences, making inside jokes and referencing trips that they had been on together. According to a computational analysis of their speech, they even converged linguistically, using certain words to express precisely the same meanings. “They were reasserting the fact that, despite that feedback, they actually do experience the world in the same way,” says Rossignac-Milon.


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