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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Relating to Others

Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.


Psychological Tips for Relating to Others

What are some good psychological tips for relating to others?

The overriding idea is simple -- you can relate and work with people well if you know them well.  Everyone with whom you interrelate on a regular basis, from friends to lovers, is psychologically "hardwired" in a highly similar fashion. This hardwiring means that people analyze and use certain types of information in very predictable ways. My career in psychology has spanned ten years of formal education and training and twenty years of research and applied practice. That background and expertise was used to select five psychological principles to help daters understand the predictable elements in people. Armed with this knowledge, you will know and work with others personally and romantically much more effectively.

Principle #1: The magical number “5” (plus or minus two)
As imaginative and innovative as we humans are, we can’t constructively handle or process more than about five pieces of information at any given time. This is one reason why telephone numbers in the US have no more than seven digits and why excessive multi-tasking can be ineffective.

The principle in practice: For best results in most situations, present material or information in chunks if your aim is comprehension, retention and impact. Therefore, keep your profile points or ideally limited to three (but not more than five) main ideas or paragraphs. Not only is it easier for someone to understand and remember three main ideas; it’ll be easier for you too. Also keep this principle in mind when communicating with people in general. For example, organizing long e-mail messages into three smaller paragraphs is more reader-friendly and impactful than presenting a single lengthy paragraph.

Principle #2: “Similarity” is a bridge builder
Most people are familiar with the common but competing expressions: “opposites attract” and “birds of a feather flock together.”  You need elements of both sameness and difference in romantic relationships, but platonic and business relationships are more favorably influenced by similarity between people. Use this idea when first getting to know someone online or offline. Remember…people prefer those who are most like them. Consider this domino effect:

Similarity = familiarity = comfort = trust = strong relationship = credibility and influence

The principle in practice: You can insert yourself anywhere in this chain to start developing stronger friendships and getting more offline meetings. Simple tactics include making “small talk” or using selective self-disclosure with prospects (“I see you live in Atlanta; my sister lives in Atlanta and loves it”) or strategically agreeing with important points a prospect makes (“I agree that I should’ve emailed you back sooner, but work has been hectic lately…”).

Principle #3:  What’s “beautiful” must be “good”
Studies consistently demonstrate that perceived beauty or appearance does matter and that people intuitively equate beauty with concepts like good-better, smart-successful and important-valuable. This bias is so strong that people who are perceived as attractive (physically and interpersonally) are treated better than others in a myriad of situations. There are numerous evolutionary and psychological advantages to the attractiveness bias that is hard-wired in virtually everyone, but the important points are (1) people do judge books by their covers and (2) daters can use these powerful biases in ethical ways to bolster the perception of themselves.

The principle in practice:  It’s an understatement to say that you should look and sound your best at all times. Everything from your email signature and profile to your personal appearance and telephone etiquette should convey a warm and attractive personality. Daters shouldn’t rely solely on physical beauty to get ahead; but don’t shy away from it either.

Principle #4: “Big Five” model of personality
It is tempting to think that everyone is absolutely unique. This is true for fingerprints and other bio-data, but our “psychological DNA” may be another story. The International Programs Center at the U.S. Census Bureau puts the total population of the world at approximately 6.5 billion people, yet it may surprise you that social scientists assert that all of those individuals’ personalities can be described in terms of just five, common traits that are easily remembered by the acronym OCEAN:

Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (moodiness)

The principle in practice: The way that people express themselves is related to their personality make up. Often one of these five traits will be dominant in a specific person, and by listening to themes in their speech and mannerisms one can understand that dominant personality and respond to it. In other words, information will be better understood and received by a prospect when information is messaged in a way consistent to a person’s dominant “personality.”  For example:

Personality Trait

Underlying Motivation




Eager to learn more, asks many questions.

Interested in stimulation seeking and learning things in general.


Very cautious, deliberate in word and deed, pragmatic, non-committal, seeks details about others.

Interested in understanding details.


Makes small talk, friendly.

Interested in relationship-building.


Good listener, respectful, polite and amenable to your suggestions.

Interested in avoiding conflict and pleasing others.


Quick talker and thinker, can come across as domineering, passionate, driven and narcissistic.

Interested in controlling circumstances, establishing authority and asserting expertise.

Principle #5: Theory of reasoned action
Comedians routinely joke that men are over-analytical and women are over-emotional, but the truth is closer to the middle. All human beings are inherently emotional and intellectual creatures. We actually make conscious decisions (voting, product choices and even whom to date) based on Behavioral Intentions. Intentions derive from two main drivers: Attitude and Subjective Norms.

Attitude is defined as the individual's positive or negative feelings about performing a behavior. It is determined through an assessment of one's beliefs regarding the consequences arising from a behavior and an evaluation of the desirability of these consequences. Subjective norms are defined as an individual's perception of whether people important to the individual think the behavior should be performed. The contribution of the opinion of any given outside influencer is weighted by the motivation that an individual has to comply with the wishes of that influencer. In other words, Attitude-oriented people make decisions based on their own set of values and criteria, whereas Subjective Norms-oriented people given stronger weight to the attitude of certain others. Needless to say, these two characterizations are not mutually exclusive as most people fall somewhere in the middle and they pay attention to Attitudinal and Subjective Norms alike, albeit to different degrees.


Source: Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, Attitude, Intention and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Don Mills, Ontario: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

The principle in practice: People weigh both Attitudes and Subjective Norms when making decisions, but they may not always be weighted equally in every scenario. Once you gauge a person’s “points of strongest influence” on a given issue then you can target your messaging to appeal to those influences and impact the person’s behavioral intentions (similar to the above example of adapting messaging to a prospect’s personality). For instance, you can tell if a decision-maker’s process is skewed towards a certain point of influence by initially asking questions like, “What made you decide to contact me?” Someone with strong Attitudes will have found you through personal searching, while someone with strong Social Norms will have looked to see your rating or the match was suggested by a compatibility system.



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3Houran, J., & Lange, R. (2004). Redefining delusion based on studies of subjective paranormal ideation. Psychological Reports, 94, 501-513.

4Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2000). Modeling Maher’s attribution theory of delusions as a cusp catastrophe. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 4, 235-254.

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10Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well being: theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16, 201-228.

11Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.

12Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.

Dr. James Houran's "Office Hours with Dr. Jim" column is published every Monday.

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