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The Psychology of Attraction

Attraction is a funny thing. It isn’t a choice; we don’t really get to decide who or what traits and characteristics we are attracted to. This isn’t a problem if you happen to be attracted to what’s good for you, but interestingly that isn’t always the case. Strictly defined as “the action or power of evoking interest in or liking for someone or something”, the reputable Urban Dictionary describes attraction as “easy to avoid but impossible to ignore”, and as “a force that pulls two [or more] people together regardless of their own will”. Too true.

You’ve surely wondered why it is you like someone, or asked yourself what it is about that person you like. When you are asked to justify your feelings for someone, friends asking “why them? What is it about them?!” your mind tries to pinpoint the reasons you are attracted to that particular person; you try to construct a list of sorts of all the things about that person you like. Why do I like them?

Attraction isn’t merely inexplicable and based entirely on personal preference; there is an evolutionary and scientific basis to explaining attraction and attractiveness. Interpersonal attraction refers to any type of positive feeling towards another, which can include liking, friendship, love, lust or even just admiration. There are many different influencing factors, but the main ones can be summed up under 4 main categories; physical attractiveness, proximity, similarity and reciprocity.

Physical attractiveness is, naturally enough, what primarily determines romantic attraction. Especially in the early stages of dating, people are attracted to people that are physically appealing to them. Research shows that this applies even more to men than it does to woman, with men paying more attention to looks and valuing physical attractiveness more than woman. Within the concept of physical attractiveness is what’s been coined “the matching hypothesis,” whereby people tend to go for people that are a similar level of attractiveness as they see themselves to be.

In the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, an article entitled “The Big, the Rich, and the Powerful: Physical, Financial, and Social Dimensions of Dominance in Mating and Attraction” by Angela D. Bryan, Gregory D. Webster, and Amanda L. Mahaffey, outlines some interesting insights drawn about attraction from an evolutionary perspective:

“Physical attractiveness preferences shared by both sexes are typically cues to physical health, including hair quality, oral health, lively gait and movement, facial averageness, and fluctuating (bodily) asymmetry. Men’s physical attractiveness preferences for women are typically cues to reproductive fitness, including youth, developed breasts, lower waist-to-hip ratios, lower body weights, and lower body mass indexes. In contrast, women’s physical attractiveness preferences for men are typically understood as cues indicative of gene quality and healthy testosterone production, including height, higher shoulder-to-hip ratios, high shoulder-to-waist ratios, and lower waist-to-chest ratios.”

Proximity and similarity are fairly comparable, and are pretty self-explanatory. Naturally, we tend to befriend people that are geographically close to us, and also who are similar to us in terms of age, background, likes and dislikes, etc. and these connections often form the beginnings of romantic relationships, and so would be considered an influencing factor in attractiveness. Reciprocity is also self-explanatory: more often than not, people like people who like them – simple as.

Romantic love can be separated into a category of its own, and further split into two main types that don’t always come hand-in-hand; passionate love is the lustful type, the intense one based on sexual desire, and compassionate love, which is a little less intense and a lot more practical, based on intimacy and commitment, being warm and close and having a genuine intent to maintain and put effort into a relationship.

Many may argue that there is a difference between genuine attraction and physical, sexual attraction. This is because sometimes, we may feel sexually attracted to someone we don’t particularly like as a person. This seems strange, but it happens. Why do we sometimes find ourselves being attracted to people we don’t necessarily like? In other words, why is it we find ourselves attracted to assholes or to people who may not be treating us the greatest?

I found an interesting theoretical approach to answering this question in an academic article by Pat Love (ironic enough) and Sunny Shulkin entitled “Imago Theory and The Psychology of Attraction”; The answer lies in the imago (im-ah’-go)— which refers to our unconscious image of love. This is based on a theory developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and his wife who worked together on a book they called Getting the Love You Want, in which they revealed that “we come into relationships with expectations of love that have been influenced by our early experience with caregivers”; as [Pat] Love and Shulkin explain further, “we are attracted to the person who brings us the form of love that feels familiar, for better or worse”. Well, this is pretty heavy and deep if you consider what it is implying. It reminds me somewhat of a realisation come to by a fictional John Green character: “We accept the love we think we deserve”.

I mean, you would think it only natural to be turned off by any negative traits, anything that wouldn’t be the best characteristic in a partner, but that isn’t the case. Unconsciously, you are sometimes drawn to traits or characteristics not because they are good or appealing or positive in any way, but just simply because they feel comfortable and familiar: we have seen them in other relationships, whether between our parents or those that surrounded us as we grew up. It’s the subconscious memories formed in childhood that have a significant influence over what it is we go for in a partner.

So there you have it, a few interesting facts about attraction that may or may not answer a few of the questions that boggle your mind when you catch yourself falling for someone.

Here are just some more interesting facts about attraction:

    • Apparently we tend to be attracted to people that look like us… This could just be due to the “matching hypothesis”.
    • We also seem to be attracted to people who remind us of our parents, a strange one, but again possibly related to the imago effect; being attracted to what’s familiar. If this rings any bells, you may want to google “Oedipus complex.”
    • If you’re already physiologically aroused (e.g., from having just exercised) you are more likely to develop an attraction for anyone you may meet shortly after, as you may mistakenly attribute the source of your elevated heartbeat to the stranger instead of the true source of that arousal.
    • Drink does have an influence: “Beer goggles” really are a thing. Research has found that the drunker people get, the higher the attractiveness ratings they give to strangers. Alcohol also changes how attractive we perceive ourselves, which could explain that particular boldness drunk people seem to adopt, regardless of how shy or reserved otherwise.
    • If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, playing hard to get seems to work. But you need to be careful with this one as it can backfire. Researchers Dai, Dong, and Jia (2014) investigated the question, “When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction?” and they found that, while playing hard to get might increase feelings of “wanting” in others (a desire to pursue the aloof person), it might also decrease “liking” (positive feelings about the person).
    • When it comes to pick-up lines, it has been discovered that opening with a simple “hi” or “hello,” or leading with an innocuous question are the better and more effective strategies.
    • Attraction is a multi-sensory process. We aren’t just attracted to looks and traits or characteristics, but also to smell, and taste (how their mouth tastes when you kiss), and so on…
    • The things that heterosexual women find attractive in men vary depending on where they’re at in their menstrual cycle. Specifically, when women are at peak fertility, they tend to be attracted to “manlier” men (e.g., muscular guys with deep voices). (I came across a very funny tweet once, a girl asking how she could explain to a guy that the only reason she found him attractive and came on to him was because it was coming up to her period and now it’s over so… there you go, this is an actual thing, apparently.)
    • Heterosexual men tend to find women wearing red clothing more attractive than women wearing any other colour. Why? Some theorize that men have evolved a tendency to become aroused by this colour because women’s bodies naturally become red/pink during sexual arousal (e.g., many women experience a “sex flush” or reddish rash that appears primarily on the chest during arousal). 
    • Our patterns of sexual attraction appear to change seasonally. For instance, heterosexual men report greater attraction to women’s bodies and breasts in the winter months than they do in the summer months. (Must be a comfort thing?)

If you want to read more about things like attraction, and sexuality, maybe give a look at the Sexpress. If you want to write about sex & relationships, email Sexpress@UCCExpress.ie.