The Law of Dissimilars

Photograph by Ricki Rosen/Corbis

Humans have a natural propensity to distrust the “other.” The classic social-psychology experiment in which individuals are randomly assigned group identities—the red dots versus the blue dots, for instance—and left in a room to resolve conflicts has shown that we quickly revert to adversarial tendencies, pitting “us” against “them.” Politicians throughout history have exploited this to horrific ends; recent wars in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Sudan are among the chilling examples.

But what might the world look like if leaders saw an advantage in promoting not simply tolerance but liking of other groups? This question has fueled a multilayered research initiative headed by Todd L. Pittinsky, Ph.D. ’01, assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government and a core faculty member at its Center for Public Leadership. Pittinsky, who admits he has “a track record for liking to turn things around,” coined the term allophilia from Greek roots meaning “love or like of the other” after he was unable to find an antonym for prejudice in any dictionary. “Social scientists have long observed intergroup dislike and hatred, and they have become quite sophisticated at piecing together that puzzle,” he explains. “To help solve some of our most pressing domestic and global public problems, social scientists must develop an equally sophisticated understanding of intergroup liking and love.”

Pittinsky wondered whether allophilia might provide an alternative to conventional leadership strategies for reducing intergroup conflict. Encouraging positive intergroup feelings might add an important missing piece, he felt, to existing tactics such as prejudice reduction, intergroup contact, individuation, and the introduction of transcendent goals and identities. Prejudice reduction, for instance, aims only to achieve a state of tolerance. But tolerance, Pittinsky notes, is but a midpoint between prejudice and positive intergroup relations—it is not the opposite of prejudice. When objective conflicts arise, people are likely to slip back to their adversarial positions. Ensuring peace demands something stronger than tolerance: namely, the promotion of favorable attitudes toward members of “out groups,” i.e., allophilia.

Though real-world examples of allophilia don’t exactly abound, the phenomenon may be commoner than supposed. Pittinsky points to college students and Fulbright scholars who fall in love with foreign cultures that they experience or study. Martin Luther King Jr., he notes, explicitly stressed the need to move beyond tolerance to positive intergroup attitudes, and concluded that love could be a “potent instrument for social and collective transformation.” And in the case of those who sheltered and protected Jews from the Nazis, Pittinsky says, “Tolerance—the absence of prejudice—is unlikely to fully explain these brave acts. While it is possible that social justice motives, rather than allophilia, may have motivated their first steps, love for the beneficiaries of these courageous acts may have come to sustain many of the individuals who brought them about.”

To help define the components of allophilia, Pittinsky and postdoctoral research fellow Seth Rosenthal, Ph.D. ’01 (see “Self-Esteem, Real and Phony,” September-October, page 18) conducted a recent survey by questionnaire that collected 3,500 statements describing various facets of allophilia. Their “snowball sample,” seeded with 15 college students (10 from Harvard), yielded an international cohort of 281 respondents (54 percent from outside the United States) who ranged in age from 18 to 74, and were two-thirds female and one-third nonwhite. A statistical factor analysis identified four salient components of allophilia: admiration (believing members of the group have desirable traits); trust (believing members of the group are dependable and moral); connection (feeling similar to members of the group); and engagement (desiring to interact with members of the group).

In a subsequent study, the researchers measured these attitudes and checked their persistence. Subjects’ responses remained stable over a one-week period, with a very high correlation (.96) in a test/retest experiment. Research to date does not suggest any differences between genders in allophilia levels, but levels do vary significantly among individuals. This suggests that allophilia measures may be effective ways to record people’s real sentiments and likely behaviors. (By contrast, Pittinsky observes, measures of racism and sexism show minimal variance among individuals and are of limited social-scientific value because research subjects tend to give socially desirable responses, not wanting to admit to prejudice.)

Pittinsky hopes that the concept of allophilia will be applied to a wide range of problems across disciplines. Currently, Anna Chen ’06, a psychology concentrator, is using the allophilia scale in her honors thesis, which will examine the conditions under which foreigners’ attitudes toward U.S. political leaders positively or negatively affect their feelings for the American people. Allophilia may also have relevance for education. Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, an organization that places recent college graduates in economically disadvantaged and racially diverse public schools, is collaborating with Pittinsky on a study of how teachers’ allophilia for their students may affect student achievement.

Pittinsky is prepared for skeptics who may question the wisdom of substituting one kind of group thinking for another. “Humans have organized, and always will organize, their social world into groups, and categorize others,” he says. “The study of allophilia shifts us away from the negative aspects of these tendencies, toward their potentially positive aspects.”

~Ashley Pettus

Todd Pittinsky e-mail address:

Allophilia website:

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