Birds of a Feather Sit Together: Nested Interests in Seating Preferences
Adelaide Manley

Opposites don’t attract. In fact, we choose to sit beside people who are similar to us in subtle ways.

Proximity and similarity are key to determining the likelihood of forming relationships with others. Take a look at the people you interact with daily. Based on demographic research, our friends, partners and coworkers tend to be alike on various sociodemographic variables. This is called homophily.

You are more likely to sit beside someone who shares the same gender and race or ethnicity. However, in four different studies, Mackinnon, Jordan, and Wilson at Dalhousie University investigated how our seating choices are affected by physical similarity.

In Study 1, the researchers wanted to know if people choose where to sit based on glasses-wearing status in a naturalistic environment.

The results indicate glasses wearers were more likely to sit by other glasses wearers and non-glasses wearers by other non-glasses wearer. Interestingly, glasses wearing status is not significantly associated with any obvious social group membership types or prejudices.

Seating segregation could also be predicted by gender, meaning men sat near other men and women by other women.

For Study 2, the researchers investigated whether broader physical characteristics, including glasses wearing, hair colour and length, as well as sex and race, predicted seating arrangements in a naturalistic environment.

Not surprisingly, as supported by previous studies, the researchers found that people were more likely to sit beside others who were physically similar in race and sex.

Interestingly, people tended to sit next to others who were physically similar in hair length and colour too, but hair colour was not quite statistically significant. More importantly, when sex and race were controlled (i.e. the broader social categories), the same findings emerged, meaning we really do prefer to sit near others who share these traits with us.

Study 3 is conceptually similar to the first two studies, but was more controlled and used a confederate to understand seating preferences among participants who have never met.

They found people were more likely to sit closer to the confederate if they were physically similar, even when variables like attractiveness, sex and race were controlled for.

Finally, in Study 4, participants rated photographs of individuals who varied by sex and glasses-wearing status and stated where they would hypothetically choose to sit. Glasses-wearing similarity was indirectly associated with seating preference. Physical similarly was also indirectly associated with seating preference through perceived attitudinal similarity.

Generally speaking, when we think other people look like us, we may assume they are similar to us in other ways, such has having similar attitudes and beliefs. Sitting closer to people who are similar to us also increases our chances of starting a relationship with them.

Next time you’re at the doctor’s office, in a lecture hall or at the movie theatre, take a second look at the individuals sitting nearby. You may be surprised by, and more aware of, how physically similar they are to you.

About the Author: Adelaide Manley is an undergraduate student studying psychology and family & child studies at the University of Guelph. After graduation, she is hoping to pursue a Master of Social Work.

Resources

Mackinnon, S. P., Jordan, C. H., & Wilson, A. E. (2011). Birds of a feather sit together: Physical similarity predicts seating choice.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(7), 879-892. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167211402094