Written by Mallorie Miller-Smith
What determines our attraction to other people? Attraction is a key component to successfully beginning a romantic relationship. For this blog post, I will discuss what makes us like each other. Specifically, I will address research about whether attraction is an individual choice - as we believe it is – or if it is due to biological and situational variants that are out of our control.
Ultimately, humans make the final decision in whether or not to act on an attraction; however, several key components affect that decision. When considering the influence of biological and circumstantial aspects, it is important to note how large of an impact these factors have on an individual. Individuals often underestimate the influence of these factors when they think they, individually, are freely deciding whether or not to pursue a relationship. If you were to ask someone why they initially chose their current partner, they are unlikely to tell you that it had anything to do with the misattribution of arousal because they had just gotten off a roller coaster before meeting their new date (e.g., Dutton & Aron, 1974). Likewise, they are unlikely to think about how hungry they were when they met had anything to do with the person to whom they were attracted (Swami & Tovée, 2006). Yet, these conditions may have had a lot to do with why individuals were initially attracted to each other. I will now offer some evidence to support this claim.
A surprising finding in social psychology is the sheer number of circumstantial determinants that affect attraction. These range from the wearing red clothes (Elliot & Niesta, 2008; Elliot, Niesta, Greitemeyer, Lichtenfeld, Gramzow, Maier, & Liu, 2010) to being surrounded by attractive people (Walker & Vul, 2014). The person who approaches the other initially is typically found to be more attractive, for both men and women (Eastwick & Finkel, 2009). There is good news for musicians: men carrying guitar cases (vs. gym bags or nothing at all) were rated to be significantly more attractive, believed to be due to onlookers' possible perception of the men's musical and intellectual abilities (Guéguen, Meineri, & Fischer-Lokou, 2014). Other factors include who approaches whom initially (Eastwick & Finkel, 2009), smiling vs. not smiling (Tracy & Beall, 2011), eye contact (Ewing, Rhodes, & Pellicano, 2010), and having a beard (Dixson & Brooks, 2013).
Or Is It All In Our Biology?
Evolutionary theory supports the idea that our primary goal is to survive and produce viable offspring who can carry on our genetic material. Under this theory, it would be most beneficial for men to mate with as many healthy women as possible, while women should procure a stable, providing partner to help raise her offspring. Research supports this by finding evidence that women are choosier about partners because they need someone with resources to support them and their offspring, while men focus on women who can provide healthy offspring and sexual loyalty (Buss, 1989). Researchers have found whether or not a woman is ovulating plays a large part in attraction, as well. For example, women find men with more masculine features (as compared to men with more feminine features) attractive when they are ovulating, while men have been shown to change their mating behavior when around an ovulating female (Gildersleeve, Haselton & Fales, 2014; Miller & Maner, 2011).
While there is evidence for both sides of the argument, it is easy to see that that our biology does have a certain influence on the person to whom we are attracted. Additionally, due to the large amount of evidence available, we must conclude that situational variables have a large impact on attraction. In conclusion, there is a large amount of evidence for a diverse array of influences, including circumstantial and biological effects, that provide a shortcut for humans to create and maintain social relationships. Ultimately, however, all of these variables come together to help us make the choice to initiate a relationship.
Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12(1), 1-49. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00023992
Dixson, B. J., & Brooks, R. C. (2013). The role of facial hair in women's perceptions of men's attractiveness, health, masculinity and parenting abilities. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(3), 236-241. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2013.02.003
Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(4), 510- 517. doi:10.1037/h0037031
Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: Do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), 245-264. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
Elliot, A. J., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: Red enhances men's attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1150-1164. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.110
Elliot, A. J., Niesta Kayser, D., Greitemeyer, T., Lichtenfeld, S., Gramzow, R. H., Maier, M. A., & Liu, H. (2010). Red, rank, and romance in women viewing men. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139(3), 399-417. doi:10.1037/a0019689
Ewing, L., Rhodes, G., & Pellicano, E. (2010). Have you got the look? Gaze direction affects judgements of facial attractiveness. Visual Cognition, 18(3), 321-330. doi:10.1080/13506280902965599
Gildersleeve, K., Haselton, M. G., & Fales, M. R. (2014). Do women’s mate preferences change across the ovulatory cycle? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 140(5), 1205-1259. doi:10.1037/a0035438
Guéguen, N., Meineri, S., & Fischer-Lokou, J. (2014). Men’s music ability and attractiveness to women in a real-life courtship context. Psychology Of Music, 42(4), 545-549. doi:10.1177/0305735613482025
Miller, S. L., & Maner, J. K. (2011). Ovulation as a male mating prime: Subtle signs of women's fertility influence men's mating cognition and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(2), 295-308. doi:10.1037/a0020930
Swami, V., & Tovée, M. J. (2006). Does hunger influence judgments of female physical attractiveness? British Journal of Psychology, 97(3), 353-363. doi:10.1348/000712605X80713
Tracy, J. L., & Beall, A. T. (2011). Happy guys finish last: The impact of emotion expressions on sexual attraction. Emotion, 11(6), 1379-1387. doi:10.1037/a0022902
Walker, D., & Vul, E. (2014). Hierarchical encoding makes individuals in a group seem more attractive. Psychological Science, 25(1), 230-235. doi: 10.1177/0956797613497969
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Chelsea Ellithorpe
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor