Demystifying the Magic Of Attraction

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. 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 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.

Increasing facial attractiveness: get a haircut that frames your face nicely, consider using makeup, consider using skin care products that work to avoid blemished skin, adjust facial hair to an ideal length (for men), avoid hair in places it is considered 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. 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.

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, and wear clothes that are currently in style (which of course varies a lot across times and places).

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 might be a weak, but useful indicator of how fit your offspring would have been (100,000 years ago) 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 a bit more sense if you accept this idea.

Increasing scent attractiveness: bathe regularly, use antiperspirant deodorant, use cologne or perfume (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 shown to produce feelings of both liking and attraction. The social acceptability of initiating eye contact, however, is culturally dependent.

Increasing eye attractiveness: make eye contact during conversations, hold eye contact just slightly longer than normal to increase intensity (but not too long!)

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 use similar body language to our own.

Increasing perceived similarity: bring up ways that you and the person you are talking to are similar, actively seek similarities, 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 this 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 they enjoy), make the other person laugh, maintain reasonably high energy while together, be spontaneous.

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 more hotly debated). 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.

Increasing status based attractiveness: work naturally into conversation (without bragging) things that make you seemed 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 like 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 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.

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.

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 the reverse may not hold).

Increasing interest based attractiveness: smile a lot (but it has to look natural), laugh, complement the other person, be considerate and kind, pay close attention to everything the other person says, ask lots of questions, let the other person do 60% of the talking, empathize with what is being said, and back their statements to be sure you understand.

10. Trust: We tend to be more willing to open up to people we trust, and opening up itself creates trust (when 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. Actively working to develop an 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, and if the other person seems emotional about something, gently give them an opening 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 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 (but if a baseline of attraction is not there, touch can backfire). Touch, however, can also make others uncomfortable when it occurs without their consent, so with touch it is especially important to read the other person’s desires accurately.

Increasing touch based attractiveness: 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), make further contact (but only if attraction or contact is clearly being reciprocated).

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 lots 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 without seeming intentionally so, 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 comprehensive terms: face, body, scent, eyes, similarity, fun, status, value, interest, trust, touch and time. Understanding this doesn’t make attraction feel any less wonderful, it just makes it less mysterious and more attainable.

Influences: Alex Fanshel, Richard Wiseman

7 thoughts on “Demystifying the Magic Of Attraction

  1. yas says:

    seriously, how fast do you bang this stuff out? Every night I sign on and there you are, giving me completely valid advice on something I was thinking about yesterday… It`s really annoying, but in the best possible way. 🙂

  2. Ema says:

    That “Fortunately for Scientists” paragraph ending in “Hopefully, without the illusion of magic, it will still feel magical” is really beautiful, Spencer.
    Really describes what I call the “spiritual” aspects of science; it gets more miraculous the more we know, you know?

  3. john says:

    Isn’t Alex an influence on us all…

    I find it somewhat strange that certain facial features are attractive but make little difference, as you say. Are we just unaware of why? I’d probably say the same about the peacock paradox…maybe we’re just wrong, and it’s not a paradox (it wouldn’t be the first time something was mislabeled as a paradox). When given a choice between two females [human], I think chicken and men choose the same one like 80% of the time or something. I wonder if other animals would do the same. Humans are smart though to the point where we can almost “overpower” evolutionary goals like reproduction: many people don’t want kids for example–at least that’s what they say.

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      Things like facial features can be subject to runaway sexual selection. See here for an explanation of this process. It can work even on traits that have long since stopped being useful for survival purposes.

      While humans can override certain aspects of their genetic programming, it is not the easiest thing to modify which facial features you find attractive (though one can make a certain degree of progress, surely).

  4. Nikah skyy says:

    So I’m reading this because I met a guy and we were around each other for all of 3min and that attraction hit is both like a bag of rocks and he has a girl friend and I have a boyfriens. This was in April its now july and we cant be in the same room with each other and not have some kind of physical contact heart beats rapidly skinngets warm words get tied it has become so crazy he and in had a talk about what we felt we explained the same feelings finishing each other sentence. The same physical things happen around each other . so we try and stay away from each other… But its torture.

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      Sounds like a really tough situation!

Leave a Reply