The common good phenomenon: Why similarities are positive and differences are negative


Positive attributes are more prevalent than negative attributes in the social environment. From this basic assumption, 2 implications that have been overlooked thus far: Positive compared with negative attributes are more likely to be shared by individuals, and people’s shared attributes (similarities) are more positive than their unshared attributes (differences). Consequently, similarity-based comparisons should lead to more positive evaluations than difference-based comparisons. We formalized our probabilistic reasoning in a model and tested its predictions in a simulation and 8 experiments (N = 1,181). When participants generated traits about 2 target persons, positive compared with negative traits were more likely to be shared by the targets (Experiment 1a) and by other participants’ targets (Experiment 1b). Conversely, searching for targets’ shared traits resulted in more positive traits than searching for unshared traits (Experiments 2, 4a, and 4b). In addition, positive traits were more accessible than negative traits among shared traits but not among unshared traits (Experiment 3). Finally, shared traits were only more positive when positive traits were indeed prevalent (Experiments 5 and 6). The current framework has a number of implications for comparison processes and provides a new interpretation of well-known evaluative asymmetries such as intergroup bias and self-superiority effects.

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146, 512-528