Law of Similarity: Overview & Examples

Instructor: Orin Davis
Psychologists use the Law of Similarity to understand behavior. Learn the Law of Similarity, which is the tendency to link similar items into a distinct group, and see examples of how it affects you every day.

Definition of the Law of Similarity

Have you ever walked down a busy street on a summer day and heard the music coming out of the cars with open windows? You are probably hearing multiple songs at once, and yet you are able to identify each of them and not get lost in the ocean of sound. Within each song, the series of notes is connected more closely than it is to the notes of any of the other songs, and it is this similarity that allows you to pick out the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and Barbara Streisand all at the same time. The fact that we link things that are similar and treat them like a distinct group is the Law of Similarity. Psychologists use the Law of Similarity to understand behavior.

Examples of the Law of Similarity

To really understand how the Law of Similarity works, let's look at a few examples.

Example 1

Take a look at the letters below:

h h h h h h h h h h

q q q q q q q q q q

n n n n n n n n n n

p p p p p p p p p p

You would probably describe what you see as four rows of letters instead of ten columns of letters, because we tend to group similar things into whole sets - that's the Law of Similarity.


Example 2

What shape do you see in this picture?

ASCII Smiley

If you look closely, you will see that the smiley face is made of individual characters. We are able to see each of the eyes and the mouth because they are made of similar characters that we combine in our minds using the Law of the Similarity. While the light and dark contrasts help, we would be able to see the smiley face as long as the characters that make up the eyes are all the same but also distinct from the characters that make up the background. That way, we can group the characters using the Law of Similarity and distinguish them as eyes that are separate from the background of the face.

The Law of Similarity is a Gestalt Rule

The Law of Similarity is one of the rules that comes from Gestalt Psychology ('gesh-TAHLT'; German for 'whole'), which is about how human beings perceive wholes. Gestalt Psychology describes how a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Take a look at Example 3 to see for yourself.

Example 3

Here are four lines:

Four Lines

Here are four more lines:

Four lines in a square

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