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 second pair might remark, whereas a member of the first 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.
And yet, 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. Face. 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 obviously makes no difference, non-socially speaking, whether you have high cheekbones or low ones, a big nose or a small one, thick lips or narrow ones), facial features obviously impact attraction a great deal. Symmetry tends to be appealing to us (it likely provides some indication of healthy development), as is clear and smooth skin (which may correlate with being free of disease) and youthfulness (which is linked to both less disease and greater 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 seem to be preferred). Facial features are likely 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). But they also gain relevance because mating with good-looking people is likely to result in good-looking children who are more 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, regardless of whether they correlate with any other desirable traits. Of course, plenty of preferences about faces are cultural rather than genetic. If you are embedded in a culture with strong facial preferences though, you unfortunately are still likely to be evaluated based on them.
Increasing facial attractiveness: get a haircut that frames your face nicely, consider using makeup, consider using skin care products that help you avoid blemishes or blotchy skin, adjust facial hair to an ideal length for your culture (men), avoid hair in places that your culture considers it undesirable by waxing, shaving or plucking.
2. Body. 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. Much of what is found attractive with regard to the body is of course not genetic, but determined by societal norms. Specific preferences in body mass index appear to have this quality. In some cultures, for example, higher body mass index is associated with wealth, whereas in others it is associated with poverty. Sun tanning of the skin is also viewed differently by different cultures (sometimes it’s viewed as desirable, other times, undesirable).
Increasing body attractiveness: exercise regularly, lift weights (for men especially), stay close to what is considered your ideal weight (which is culturally dependent), wear clothes that fit you well (e.g. avoid baggy t-shirts), consider tastefully showing off a little bit of skin (if your culture doesn’t view it negatively), and wear clothes that are currently in style (which of course varies tremendously across time and place).
3. Scent. Smell influences attraction to an extent that many don’t realize. People tend to rate t-shirts worn by more physically 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 seem to get rated as having more attractive scents than those with less symmetrical faces. One can speculate that the attractiveness of a person’s smell to you might be a weak (but not totally worthless) indicator of how fit your offspring would have been on average 100,000 years ago if they were produced with that person. Comments that people sometimes make such as “the thing I liked best about my ex was his smell” make quite a lot more sense if you believe this idea.
Increasing scent attractiveness: bathe regularly, use antiperspirant deodorant, use cologne or perfume with a scent that appeals to the gender you find attractive (but don’t make these added scents too strong).
4. Eyes. 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 found to produce feelings of both liking and attraction. The social acceptability of initiating eye contact, however, is highly culturally dependent.
Increasing eye attractiveness: make intense eye contact during conversations, hold eye contact just slightly longer than normal to increase intensity (but not too long or it is considered odd or creepy!)
5. Similarity. 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 purposely use body language that mirrors our own.
Increasing perceived similarity: bring up ways that you and the person you are talking to are similar, actively seek similarities, subtly mirror the other person’s body language, if the other person says something you agree with, make sure they know you agree.
6. Fun. People tend to be a lot more attracted to those that they have a pleasurable time with. It could be that the person makes you laugh, or is a great conversationalist, or takes you to hear awesome bands you didn’t know about. When something makes us feel good, we naturally want more of it.
Increasing fun based attractiveness: do activities with the other person (of the type you know the person enjoys), make the other person laugh, maintain reasonably high energy and enthusiasm while together, be spontaneous, monitor the other person to make sure they are having fun.
7. 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 much more hotly debated, but it stands to reason that high status women are also attractive to men for the same reasons). Status is not so much about thinking a person is objectively valuable, as it is about viewing them as being viewed as valuable by others. For instance, men who are engaged in conversation with multiple women at a bar may seem more desirable to other women than men standing alone, because they seem to be considered at least somewhat valuable by other women (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “social proof”). 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.
Increasing status based attractiveness: work naturally into conversation (without bragging) things that make it clear you are liked, popular, or looked up to by others, let the other person see you in a situation where others like or admire you (e.g. giving a well received speech, or around friends that clearly value you a lot).
8. 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 in the ancestral environment. Lack of confidence may be particularly troubling, as it may signal to the other person that even we ourselves don’t think we are very valuable (though the conventional wisdom is that women care more about confidence in men than the reverse). It has also been found in surveys 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 is what you’d expect when taking a gene survival perspective, since the former case implies that the time invested in mating will not be wasted (in terms of maximizing gene spreading), and the latter case implies that the children you invest time into raising will probably be your own (again, beneficial for gene survival).
Increasing value based attractiveness: work naturally into conversation (without bragging or seeming self-absorbed) things that show you are talented, wealthy, intelligent, hard-working, ambitious or effective, let the person see you in a situation where you are doing something you are very skilled at, be kind and confident.
9. 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 whether the reverse holds is unclear).
Increasing interest based attractiveness: smile a lot (but it has to be genuine so as not to seem fake, so think about something that makes you happy when you do it), laugh, complement the other person in truthful ways, be considerate, pay close attention to everything the other person says, really try to understand the other person’s point of view, ask lots of questions, let the other person do 60% of the talking, empathize, and say the other person’s thoughts back to them in their own words to confirm you understood what they meant.
10. Trust: We tend to be more willing to open up to people we trust, and opening up itself creates trust (when that opening up is responded to in a positive manner) leading to a positive feedback loop. Usually a person will feel more comfortable opening up to you and trusting you if you do the same first. Sharing something personal will encourage the other person to do so as well (but you should start by opening up in smaller ways so as not to come across as weird). Actively working to develop a deep understanding of the other person can also build trust.
Increasing trust based attractiveness: open up to the other person first, tell personal stories (but don’t go overboard at first), empathize with what the other person says, respond positively to the other person telling you personal things, ask meaningful questions that really help you understand the other person, and if the other person seems emotional about something, gently give them an opening for them to elaborate about it without pressuring them to do so.
11. 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 (especially women’s) attraction of those who use touch. But whether or not this is true, physical touch 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 (but if a baseline of attraction is not there, or if someone doesn’t feel at ease around you, touch can very easily backfire, making someone like you less). And of course touch can make others uncomfortable when it occurs without their consent, so it is especially important to read the other person’s desires accurately and to use caution.
Increasing touch based attractiveness: lightly touch the other person’s upper arm momentarily (but only if it’s appropriate in the current context), sit close to the other person if you have the opportunity (but again only if it’s appropriate in the current context and back away if they give any signs of discomfort or if they back away to make more space), make further contact only if attraction or contact is clearly being reciprocated, read the other person very carefully for any signs of disinterest or discomfort.
12. Time. While attraction is sometimes instantaneous, it frequently takes time with a person for attraction to build. In part this is because only some of the factors mentioned in this article can be assessed immediately. Others you can only perceive if you’ve spent enough time with a person. Generally, time spent together won’t make up for the absence of other factors, but it is often necessary for them to come into play. Beyond that though, as we spend more time with people we usually become more comfortable with them, and are more likely to bond.
Increasing time based attractiveness: spend plenty of time with the other person, especially time that is fun.
The trickiest part about many of the techniques mentioned above is that, while they build attraction if done skillfully, they will also be viewed negatively if performed unnaturally, obviously or awkwardly. For instance, makeup that is too obvious but that doesn’t seem intentionally obvious, excessive eye contact, talking about one’s own accomplishments in a way that feels like bragging, smiling in a forced way, and excessive touch can all severely backfire. It’s sometimes better to have one of these factors absent than to have it be executed poorly (e.g. no jokes are better than jokes that no one is amused by).
When you find yourself strongly attracted to someone you just recently met, it certainly can feel like magic. However, it can be useful to remember that much of attraction is explainable in terms of: face, body, scent, eyes, similarity, fun, status, value, interest, trust, touch and time. Fortunately, understanding this doesn’t make attraction feel any less wonderful, it just makes it less mysterious and more attainable.
Influences: Alex Fanshel, Richard Wiseman