Adam Blatner, M.D.

February 11, 2007; Revised with new links July 6, 2009.
(Also see Webpages on 
(1)  Exploring Your Own Connectedness through Sociometry  ; (2) Sociometry: The Dynamics of Rapport; (3) Tele: The Dynamics of Rapport;  (4) Further Notes on Sociometry  ; (5) A Bibliography of Writings on Sociometry  ;
    Related articles on role theory and the like are also on this website. Browse among the papers.

One of the more neglected dimensions of social psychology is the obvious phenomenon of interpersonal preference, rapport, the way in a group we feel drawn to some people, neutral to many, and even repelled by some. The reasons for these currents of attraction and repulsion are often not obvious. The people we feel connected to may not show any obvious features which merit this positive feeling; and those with whom we feel “negative vibrations” may not have done anything we can identify as “wrong”–still, there is that vague sense of discomfort. (In the field of psychodrama, this connection is called “tele,” pronounced with a slight French-European accent, “tay’-lay,” a word coined by Dr. Jacob L. Moreno (1889-1974), who in the 1930s developed a method, “sociometry,” for assessing these patterns of interpersonal preference that constitute a significant dimension of the invisible structure of any group.)

Certainly, sometimes the reasons for feeling drawn to another person are obvious–the other person is famous, or unusually beautiful, or shows some other outstanding feature; and similarly, our negative reactions may be because the other person is drunk and aggressive or otherwise clearly problematic–but, as I say, often the reasons aren’t clear.

The dynamic of “transference” described by Freud and other psychoanalysts accounts for some of the factors in some telic connections or types of rapport, but may not be significantly operative in other relationships. It depends on the degree to which the attraction is laced with expectations (conscious or unconscious) that in fact are not present in the relationship or the other person. So interpersonal preference may be more or less realistic and / or rational.

Adding to this is the interesting feature that the people to whom we may be attracted are not the people that our cultural background or social class or other set of general expectations might predict–indeed, sometimes we find ourselves attracted to someone who our family or most of our friends might disapprove of! Correspondingly, we may feel distinctly un-attracted to those towards whom we “should” feel positively. You can imagine the scene of a six year old being encouraged to “Give Auntie Susie a big kiss!” and the child replying, “I don’t want to!.”   Or a related scene of this child going over and playing with the otherwise disreputable cousin. Indeed, you’ve probably had something analogous happen to you.

Another example: You’re in class and it’s time to do a team project, with one or a few other kids. Instead of being allowed to pick the kids you want to work with, they are assigned, according to height, the first letters of your last names, mere physical proximity–almost any criteria except preference!  Isn’t this crazy? The perception is that friends or natural playmates might fool around too much and not get as much done, but the opposite is true: People who have rapport tend to work more smoothly and are more productive!

In fact, in many situations in our social and cultural lives, the natural tendencies to connect according to preference are over-ridden. We should examine this phenomenon!

Fears of Natural Preference

The question as to who prefers whom is actually quite anxiety-provoking. People often have an irrational fear of being not chosen, which they interpret as hurtful rejection. This is projected onto others along with a desire not to hurt and offend them. One way to cope with these anxious feelings is to repress the whole issue, to ignore those subtle inner signals of innate preference.

This dynamic is as threatening as sexuality!  People don’t want to know about it consciously– they fear that they’ll have their feelings hurt, or that they’ll hurt other people’s feelings. What if you like those you’re “not supposed to” like? What if someone else seems to like you and you don’t like them back? Or not as much?  And then we are afraid that this is how others might feel to us. It’s all very awkward.

The roots of this fear lie in the Oedipal situation–but Freud, I think, mis-read and mis-interpreted those dynamics. Because in his own life he had been overly sexually stimulated by a housekeeper (around age 3) and his own mother was somewhat provocative–and his father rather forbidding, he interpreted the dynamics of jealousy in sexual terms. In fact, most kids first feel these feelings as much if not more in the natural progression of play with peers than with the nuclear family: There’s a point around age 4-5 when kids make a transition from parallel play with another child to more complex interactions with two or more others. This naturally leads to the logical question, as A + B + C play together, sometimes there are more alliances or cooperative feelings between A + B, or A + C, but equally, A notices that B + C are more allied and A feels jealous, left out, competitive, hurt, rejected.

The problem with this dynamic is that, like so many others, alas, significant residues, habits of feeling, continue, without re-programming. Also, children naturally over-generalize. They don’t appreciate the reality that people are complex, a mixture of many roles, and that some roles are more compatible than others. In other words, it’s OK to not be preferred by everyone for everything. We don’t prefer everyone, and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with those we don’t prefer. But we carry forward that transference, that early residue of experience, and if someone doesn’t prefer us–and face it, most people don’t prefer us for most role contexts–then in fact it’s just fine. It doesn’t prove we’re bad. We don’t have to feel humiliated and jealous. The rational alternative is to believe that there are some people out there whom we prefer and who will prefer us in return, and to shop for them.

This is the solution to the conundrum, and one that most people have never considered, because it takes some understanding of the nature of psychology–the reality that we have many roles, interests, etc.-- and that we need not judge ourselves as a totality–and indeed, it’s foolish to do so. Lacking this more mature attitude consciously fixed in the mind with great clarity, most folks regress to their semi-conscious and unconscious habits of avoidance and repression.


It’s important to help people appreciate that preferences, rapport (or tele), is role-based. That is, we might like someone in one role but not in another. We might feel romantically attracted to someone–but that would definitely not be the same person we’d choose to be on our sports team. The people we might want to work on a project with at school or work might not be the ones we like to go dancing with. So it pays to ask this question–what is the context that I imagine myself to be in with this other person?

At present in our culture, because most people don’t get much chance to think about such matters consciously, reactions tend to be rather global–we either “like” or “don’t like” another person. Yet we really don’t want other people to react to us this way. Oh, sure, we want to be liked, but we’re not prepared to deal with the problem that unless the reasons for the preference are negotiated with some consciousness, we’re likely to disappoint them when certain roles are not fulfilled. The point here is that to the degree that the whole culture avoids talking openly about these things, just as it was with Victorian sexuality, so much goes on anyway but it’s handled in a variety of problematic ways, suffused with patterns of denial and manipulation.

A second principle, related to the first, is that we need to open to the idea that it is okay not to be liked by a goodly number of people because we clearly don’t fit in with certain roles– and if the truth be told, these are usually roles that we don’t play well, anyway! What I’m getting at here is the idea of finding “our kind of people,” only the criteria being similarities in interest, temperament, ability, etc. And again, the culture is full of subtle situations that interfere with a free selection of people according to these criteria.

A third principle is that of attempting to become more conscious of the criteria involved, because if it just is allowed to happen, these criteria, remaining relatively unconscious, impose artificial expectations. For example, as a teenager, I was “brainwashed” by the mass media to seek girls that were pretty according to the cultural master images of the time. What I didn’t know how to do was to watch for girls who shared my interests, or who behaved in ways that were like my own behaviors–playful and imaginative–or to think about or find recreational settings, like drama, where I might have found such girls. In my world, the sporty guys and the school-politics girls were “popular” and then there were people who were “less popular.” That there were lots of different subgroups was not apparent to me.

I think I would have benefitted from the opportunity to talk about such dynamics, just as it’s helpful to be able to get the facts on sex. These dynamics are as real and yet generally avoided and not directly researched.

That’s not completely true: There has been a great deal of research on sociometry, especially around the 1940s through the 1960s, and mainly by sociologists and educational psychologists. However, these researches, as with so much in the behavior sciences, were somewhat weak in practical applicability, and as a result, the use of sociometry in research has markedly declined, used mainly with children in classrooms. The problem with the research is that the conventional methods are a little too primitive, analogous to the use of the light microscope in an era of electron microscopy.

Moreno, interestingly, wanted these methods to be applied, and felt that psychodrama and role playing could operate synergistically with sociometry. I think he was on the right track, but I’ve found that a good deal of ordinary non-action group work, simple education, discussion, and light exercises, all are necessary to warm a group up to being willing to consider using these emotionally evocative approaches.  A group leader or teacher of social psychology who wants to introduce sociometry and its associated concepts needs to also be a bit of a group therapist, a bit of a teacher with a skill for introducing and dealing with sensitive issues, a bit of a salesman–and even then, we may have to wait until the culture becomes a little more “psychologically-minded.”)

Addressing Tendencies to Avoid Thinking About Rapport Patterns

The biggest problem is the general agreement that we don’t have to think about such things– something like the attitude about sex a hundred years ago– just don’t think about it. It doesn’t work. People get into all kinds of pickles and they can’t figure out what is going on–because everyone has agreed not only not to talk about it, but not even to think about it!

Why should we? It’s just going to cause hurt feelings! – such attitudes are in denial of the deeper reality that we all know this stuff is going on. Some of it’s called “office politics.” Some of it’s called “personality clash.” Some people think it can be addressed as an aspect of temperament– and this, in fact, is partially true–and systems of testing temperaments, say, using the Meyers-Briggs Test-- and consulting to businesses or organizations, works a bit. But it still misses the deeper point, it’s still technique that avoids the deeper issues.

A related issue is that if a sufficient infrastructure of tools and positive expectations isn’t established, there’s a (realistic) feeling that such an “encounter group” topic will cause more harm than good. If you don’t know how to swim, it’s not helpful to go into the deep water. It’s harder also to attempt to teach swimming if you can’t show why swimming is a good skill to have, how it can be enjoyable, life-expanding, etc.  So, for sociometry, there’s the added burden that in our culture, many folks still haven’t warmed up to the value of knowing about psychology itself. Psychology is still stigmatized, and the prejudice is that introspection and psychological sensitivity is self-indulgent, excuse-making, a cop-out, a brainwashing by money-grubbing psychotherapists, and only for the mentally and morally weak. It’s best just not to think about such things and get on with life.

There’s a corresponding denial of the reality (I show my bias here) that ignorance of psychology leads to a socially and economically crippling level of interpersonal problems and complications. Denial is the right word, because the world is full of troubles, and many of those are from people behaving as jerks–always “other people”-- and just like an alcoholic in denial blames everyone else, so ordinary non-psychologically-minded people tend to blame other factors for their predicaments. This is the stuff of sit-coms and soap operas, and it’s tragically unnecessary, akin to people getting diseases because they lack knowledge–or refuse the inconvenience of the discipline–of basic hygiene– cleanliness, nutrition, etc.

In consequence, people in groups show a common resistance towards assessing their interpersonal dynamics: They don’t want to look at the reasons for their preferences– it’s very personal, very subtle, and very irrational. The point to be made, that a hundred years of dynamic psychology has only confirmed, is that you can’t always make your thoughts and feelings rational, but you can become aware of them, not let those thoughts or feelings run your life or determine your decisions, and more, if you don’t become aware of them, then prejudice and hunch and background and other irrational forces by default will run your life–to your detriment.

A third resistance arises out of the intuition that a measure of conflict will be generated. The truth of different preferences will lead to at the very least a mild level of discomfort. Unless again there is an infrastructure of understandings and skills all round about ways these conflicts can be worked out and resolved, people think, “Can’t we just avoid conflict?”

Again, it’s a matter of denial, the principle that people tend to avoid dealing with what they don’t know how to deal with.  Alas, interpersonal conflict is inevitable in even the closest relationships, although it need not escalate, get out of control, or always be destructive. Conflicts can be resolved, negotiated. They need not turn into violent argument, nor cruel confrontations. But the fact that approaches, intuitions, timing, feelings, don’t always “click” needs to be recognized and such points of friction be dealt with consciously. If they are denied, then the mind tends to deal with these frictions according to old, habitual, and invariably less-than-optimal reaction patterns. Those reactions are sub-optimal because they are based on past experiences and don’t take into consideration the realities of present circumstances. In psychoanalytic parlance, our interactions are contaminated by “transference”–we treat others according to how our relations with “similar” others were in the past. But in fact, those in the present aren’t as similar as we think–and that’s what messes up the working out of relationships!

But becoming aware that we need to face issues rather than running away from them is something that comes with maturity, although when the culture colludes in the avoidance, that maturity can be delayed for decades. So this paper is aimed at challenging some of those general cultural illusions and offering a more perceptive view of the world.

Re-Framing Rejection

An understanding of the nature of rejection is key, because not understanding it generates the main resistance to sociometric work, the conscious investigation of differential interpersonal preferences. The misunderstanding of rejection involves a residual feeling and subconscious belief that “if I am rejected, it means I’m bad. I did something wrong. I become shamed and humiliated.”

Alas, this belief is mistaken most of the time. Rejection is a very complex phenomenon, and not being preferred, or even having a “negative rapport” with someone, doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong or that you are lacking. We need to recognize again and again that there seems to be a natural distribution of preference, and in any group of a couple hundred people, there’ll be a few with whom you naturally “click,” and others you warm to fairly readily, and lots in-between, and similarly, on the other hand, a few with whom you’d do better avoiding if possible.

What if you can’t avoid them? What if you’re thrown together on a committee or some other work group and there’s that ol’ “personality clash”?  Well, it’s time to bring consciousness to the reasons for your negative connection. We won’t always be able to get this clear–sometimes a preference remains a mystery. But we can try.

Sometimes it has to do with certain role expectations, and if you can work out what role you want and what role they are comfortable being in, that can shift some of the friction. For example, in a group of girls, one who tended to be rejected was helped to be liked more by the teacher helping one of the more popular girls find a special role or task where the rejected girl could be helpful to the whole group. Not always, but sometimes these creative solutions can be found–but not unless the dynamics of preference are looked at frankly.

So, a corollary may be, If I don’t click in one group, I may well find another group where my connection is more congenial. It’s worth shopping around. In a world where options are expanding, as are subgroups, special interest groups, a greater variety of activities, etc., people can more readily find congenial life styles.

A Culture Shift

In a world where the people you have to relate to are your family or sub-cultural group–all others are too un-trustworthy; in a world in which the community is relatively small, the sensitivity to personal preference is an interference. Similarly, in a non-technologically advanced culture, preferences about temperature, wetness, insect bites, and other physical discomforts need to be overridden. Warriors need to become desensitized to feelings of pain and fatigue–whence comes the traditions of hazing and initiation–the point is, “can you take anything and not complain?” It makes sense for the preparation of warriors. (See paper on the psychology of hazing.)

In our own world, the shift has been from de-sensitizing people to sensitizing people–whence comes the phenomenon of “sensitivity training” in the 1950s, and more recently, sensitivity sessions about sexual harassment or multi-cultural training, etc. It’s not okay to be gross and crass and rough and brash–such qualities don’t fit with the flexibility to deal with a wide range of situations and people.

In a world where brute force and persistence makes for the main type of work, grosser feelings are useful, and sensitive feelings not so useful; in a world where creativity and active coping with a rapidly changing situation comes to dominate the quality of work, it’s reversed. Interpersonal skills and psychological mindedness become as relevant as knowing how to read and write. (Remember, knowing how to read and write wasn’t all that necessary for making it in the developed world until maybe a century or so ago!)

Some Practical Applications

In our present world, people find themselves thrown together with others who are new to the group–at conferences, in new communities, in clubs newly forming, and learning how to feel connected rather than feeling like outsiders becomes a relevant skill. Most people don’t even know there’s a skill in this– they either feel in or out.

The first step is to become alert to the phenomenon of interpersonal preference. Instead of suppressing it in yourself, allow yourself to notice who you feel connected to, attracted to, and whether there’s any intuition or subtle nonverbal communication that your feelings are reciprocated. You’ll find that they are, as a matter of fact, somewhat more than what might be expected by chance. Not always, but surprisingly probable, those you feel positively towards are a bit likely to feel that way towards you. (Of course, if you find yourself repeatedly striking out, then it’s time to re-evaluate what you think you’re looking for.)

At any rate, instead of being passive, or of simply turning to those whom you’re closest to–which is the “easy way” that most folks choose–dare to look around and go over to those you feel some connection with. You don’t have to analyze your intuitions at this phase of the game. There’s a place for analysis, but it’s generally when a bit of friction arises in a given relationship. In general, go with your flow.

This isn’t easy– the mind tends to get so afraid of “being hurt” that it’s better not even to try. This is the tragedy of Charles Schultz’ comic strip character, Charlie Brown, as he longed for the little red-headed girl but feared approaching her. There are lots of opportunities for losing in life, but not trying for fear that one might lose is particularly pitiful. Dare to go against this bit of personal and cultural conditioning and build a degree of courage into your interpersonal explorations. Go over and see if you can strike up or join a conversation. You may be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is. Most people are a little lonely and enjoy discovering new friends.

When–not if, but when–these connections don’t work, don’t give up! Try again with someone else. Passivity and over-sensitivity is the pitfall. A measure of “gumption” is needed, courage and persistence. If you keep striking out, make some notes in a notebook and/or talk with a friend about what’s going on. (Sure, you might have bad breath, or your approach is clearly too brash, or something else–don’t assume any of these things, though, find out from a friend!)

I expect that many of the readers of this paper are feeling a bit anxious just imagining such explorations. It almost feels easier and safer to stay within old familiar but lonely patterns. At least your worst fears aren’t confirmed. This mode of thinking is what we need to desensitize ourselves to–the belief that rejection is catastrophic. Some wag pointed out, “being rejected is the best way to get rid of people who don’t want to be around you.”-- make it their loss. Hold on to the belief that you will find some folks with whom you’ll click, “your kind of people,” and you’ll be able to relax and “be yourself” with these folks.

One of the common themes in biographies is how people aren’t always well-placed. The student who didn’t do well in several subjects but later found his or her strength in another field of endeavor entirely–far from being “dumb,” this person became noted for brilliance. (In fact, though, that person, if placed back in the wrong context, probably wouldn’t be brilliant at all.) Finding your church, your nation, your vocation, your romantic partner– these challenges may require many years and many tries at different alternatives along the way. Recognizing that interpersonal preference matters is an important aid in this journey–an aid in a world that for most of history has pretended to itself that it doesn’t matter.

(I recently heard a snippet from the Dr. Laura Schlesinger talk show, and she, in her remarkably insensitive way, was berating a woman who wanted to change churches because she didn’t feel socially comfortable in the church she was in. Her argument was that all that counts is the religious doctrine and social comfort was a self-indulgent luxury. Well, now, is that so?)

In closing, this paper is meant to soften people up, get them curious, about engaging more affirmatively in the process of interpersonal explorations, looking at the dynamics of interpersonal preference instead of avoiding them. This is part of what the search for authenticity and personal meaning is about, finding who you click with and later, why. This is yet a nascent field, much research has yet to be done, but it begins with a willingness to at least become aware of these awkward social issues and to open our minds to a more frank mode of discussion.

I welcome your comments and suggestions. Email me at adam@blatner.com