Attraction is often thought of as a magical thing. Two people will meet and feel immediately attracted to each other, whereas another two, though they like each other personally and acknowledge each other’s good qualities, will feel only friendship. The latter case is often explained with phrases like “they just didn’t feel it” or they “had no spark”, whereas the former, if it were to lead to marriage, might be deemed “love at first sight.” The couples themselves might not be able to explain precisely why they did or did not feel attraction. “We didn’t have chemistry”, a member of the first pair might remark, whereas a member of the second might say “there was an energy between us.” Attraction seems to just happen regardless of whether we want it to. It appears to be an inherently mysterious process.
Of course, as inscrutable as it may seem at times, attraction cannot be inherently mysterious. Mystery is what occurs when we don’t yet have an explanation for something. There is some explanation for why you are attracted to certain people and not to others, even if you don’t know what that explanation is. And if you were to understand that process of attraction, the mystery would be replaced by knowledge.
To some people, knowledge of this type would seem unromantic. Some would say that if your attraction boils down to specific physical facts about a person rather than mysterious unknowables, then beauty is taken out of the experience. But these facts about when we feel attraction exist whether or not we know precisely what the facts are. The mystery and sense of unknowability live in our minds, not in the process itself.
Fortunately for scientists, a flower still smells just as wonderful when we understand the chemistry and neurology involved in the process of smelling it. And we experience a sunset as being just as beautiful, even when we know that the pleasure experienced can be be reduced to certain neural firings in the brain responding to specific patterns of input. Hopefully, in this vein, understanding what you and others find attractive will not impact the degree to which you enjoy the feeling of being attracted, or how good it feels for someone to be attracted to you. Hopefully, without the illusion of magic, it will still feel magical.
Attraction seems well worth trying to understand, as understanding may provide insight into how to attract others, and how to prevent ourselves from being attracted to those that are bad for us. So let’s consider a number of the components that make up attraction.
1. Facial features. It’s remarkable the extent to which small variations in the protrusions on the face can alter the magic of attraction. While the precise shape of our faces is fundamentally quite arbitrary (it makes little difference, non-socially speaking, whether you have high cheekbones or low ones, a big nose or a small one), facial features obviously impact attraction a great deal. Symmetry tends to be appealing to us (it is likely an indicator of healthy development), as is clear and smooth skin (which may correlate with being free of disease) and youthfulness (which is linked to the ability to bear children). Certain specific facial ratios are preferred (e.g. big eyes in women in comparison to the size of the face, and large jaws in men). Facial features are relevant from an evolutionary standpoint as indicators of genetic fitness and compatibility (facial features correlate with genetic differences that may be relevant to the survival of your offspring and how your mate treats you). But they also gain relevance because mating with good-looking people is likely to result in good-looking children who are likely themselves to be able to find mates. Hence attractive faces, like peacock feathers, become more desirable from the point of view of the survival of your genes just due to the fact that others find them attractive.
2. Body structure. Certain features of the body (e.g. muscular chests on men, breasts of a certain size on women, and bodily symmetry in both) obviously influence attraction. Features we are less conscious of, such as the waist to hip ratio in women, may also play a role. Some of what is found attractive is of course not genetic, but determined by societal norms. Specific preferences in body mass index appear to have this quality, for example.
3. Scent. Smell influences attraction to an extent that many don’t realize. People tend to rate t-shirts worn by more attractive individuals as smelling more attractive, even when they are unaware of what the owners of the t-shirts looked like. Likewise, people with more symmetrical faces get rated as having more attractive scents than those with less symmetrical faces. The attractiveness of a person’s smell to you is probably a somewhat weak, but useful indicator of how fit your offspring would be if they were produced with that person. Comments that people make every once in a while such as “the thing I liked best about my ex was his smell” make more sense once you have this understanding.
4. Eye contact. Sometimes what we experience as sexual rapport is generated to a large extent by strong eye contact. In fact, finding an excuse to get study participants to gaze into each other’s eyes has been shown to produce feelings of both liking and attraction. The social acceptability of initiating eye contact, however, is culturally dependent.
5. Similarity/Group membership. People tend to date or marry those that are similar to themselves in traits like cultural background, age, ethnicity, IQ, political ideology, and agreeableness. This is explained, in part, by the fact that we find similarities attractive. More specifically, when others agree with us and seem like us we tend to feel more positively towards them. Finding out that someone else’s favorite movie is an obscure film that we love creates bonding. Discovering that someone hates all of our favorite foods, or disagrees with our political ideology, creates a sense of distance. When we find out that a person is part of one of our in groups (e.g. they know one of our close friends, or they grew up in the same far away country that we did) we are substantially more likely to feel warmly towards them than if we cannot identify similarity or common group membership. Similarities don’t even have to be conceptual to create liking. Clothes and manner of speaking likely have an impact. Studies have even found that we tend to like people more when they use similar body language to our own.
6. Status. Men of high status had a strong survival advantage a few hundred thousand years ago. Other people would have been likely to help them out often, they would be in control of more resources, and so forth. It therefore makes sense that women find high status attractive (the extent to which men naturally are attracted by status in women is less obvious). Status is not so much about thinking a person is objectively valuable, as it is about viewing them as being viewed as valuable. For instance, men who are engaged in conversation with multiple women at a bar seem more desirable than men standing alone, because they seem to be considered at least somewhat valuable by other women. Likewise, an actor who you just read about in a magazine is going to seem more desirable than one who you just met through a friend, and a man receiving a standard ovation for a lecture he just gave will tend to seem more attractive than an equally good-looking man at the supermarket.
7. Value. Personal characteristics obviously influence whether, in our ancient ancestral environment, someone was likely to be a good mate. This implies things like being good at providing food, rearing children effectively, and remaining faithful. To give a few examples of value, cross cultural polls indicate that women especially value intelligence, confidence, and kindness in men. Perhaps this is, in part, because these traits correlate with how well the women and their offspring would have likely been treated and taken care of in the ancestral environment. It has also been found that men tend to prefer women who are sexually promiscuous when interested primarily in short-term dating, and tend to prefer women who are un-promiscuous when considering long-term relationships. This makes sense from a gene survival perspective, since the former case implies that the time invested in mating will not be wasted, and the latter case implies that the children you invest time into raising will probably be your own.
8. Warmth/Interest. We tend to like others who like us, seem interested in us, and respond positively to the things that we say. We are unlikely to feel positive towards those who seem cold or distant. In this vein, it has been found that when women smile they appear especially attractive to males (though the reverse may not hold).
9. Touch. When we are touched by someone who we feel sufficiently comfortable around and find sufficiently good-looking, it can quite naturally lead to increased sexual attraction. Some theorize that touching others may be a way to signal high status, which may contribute to women’s attraction of those who use touch. But physical touch also naturally causes chemical releases which can lead to bonding and arousal, turning ordinary liking into sexual liking. A brief touch on the upper arm has been shown to substantially raise the success rate that men have when asking women to dance and asking for their phone numbers.
When you find yourself strongly attracted to someone that you just recently met, it certainly may feel like magic. It can be useful at times, however, to remember that attraction may be largely explainable in terms of facial features, body shape, scent, level of eye contact, similarity, membership in groups, perceived status, perceived value, and pattern of physical touch.
Influences: Alex Fanshel, Richard Wiseman