Monday, October 10, 2011

You again! The role of significant others in our social interactions

Some patterns in our lives tend to repeat.  You may meet a new person, and suddenly find that you talk as though you were back in college with them.  Or, you may meet a new romantic interest, and you speak to them as if they were an old significant other.  Or you my have a boss and you find yourself talking to him as if he was your father.

What is going on?

It is hard to have to treat each new person in your life fresh.  After all, there must be some value to all of the experience you have had with other people you have met.

Research by Susan Andersen, Serena Chen, and their colleagues suggests that we do use our experience with important people in our lives to help us figure out how to act with new people that we meet. 

The basic idea is simple.  If you meet a new person, and he has some of the characteristics of your father, then you will engage in behaviors with that person that are similar to the kinds of interactions you have had with your father.  You will also assume (unconsciously) that this person will have other characteristics that your father has.  So, your interactions with this new person are being shaped unwittingly by your own relationship with your father.

This use of your knowledge of significant others in social settings is a double-edged sword.  On the positive side, recycling your social knowledge allows you to decide quickly how to interact with new people.  Furthermore, when a person reminds you of a significant other from your past, it allows you to develop a close relationship with him or her fairly quickly.

On the negative side, you are reminded of these significant others unconsciously.  You are not deliberately saying, “This man reminds me of my father, so I am going to treat him that way.”  It happens without your awareness.  That can lead to a few potential problems.

First, not every relationship with a significant other from our lives is a healthy and positive relationship.  If you had an uncomfortable relationship with a parent, then you may find yourself having uncomfortable dealings with new people who remind you of that parent.  You may experience this discomfort without knowing why you feel negatively toward that person.

Second, while a new person in your life may remind you of someone from your past, that person is still unique.  The research by Andersen and Chen suggests that once you make a link between some new person and a significant other from your past, you begin to assume that this new person shares other characteristics with this significant other.  As a result, you may fail to pick up on subtle differences between this new person and people from your past. 

If you find yourself in a new relationship with someone (whether it is a friendship, a work relationship or a romantic relationship) and you find that you are starting to repeat old patterns of behavior, then ask yourself whether there is someone from your life that is like this person.  If you do a little digging, you may discover that you are actually treating this new person as if they were someone else.  Once you know why you are treating a new person using old patterns of behavior, you can try to be more aware and mindful of creating unique patterns of interaction