Attraction to another person isn’t as one-dimensional as mere appearance and a pleasant smile. Sure, it is easy to look at an attractive celebrity on television and say “oooh I love him/her!” But real attraction, the kind that spawns relationships and breaks hearts, is multi-faceted and eagerly studied in psychological circles. Following are a just a few of these factors.
“There’s plenty of fish in the sea.” Or that seems to be the common line said to down-on-their-luck victims of love. But how many of these fish are you going to meet? Billions of people in this world seem to point to a favorable chance for a date on Saturday night.
But let’s be realistic.
Take, say, 500 people that you will ever meet in your life and spare passing conversations with. Half of them are the same gender as you, so as long as you are heterosexual, cross 250 of them out of the net you are catching said fish in.
3/4 of them are too old or too young. You are not inclined to date someone your father’s age or older, nor someone that was born shortly before you graduated high school. This leaves approximately 63 potentials. Let us also be optimistic and suggest that only 1/3 of those around your age of a different gender have significant others while you are on the prowl. This leaves 42 people you know that are available. Oh, and eleven of them move away before you even think of them in a romantic light.
31 prospective mates, and that’s not weeding out the ones that are ‘too-fat, too-ugly, too-poor, too-creepy, too-forward, too-this too-that’. When subconsciously dismissing possible from this pool of fish, you are left with perhaps ten possible matches, fifteen tops.
But what if they don’t feel about you the way you feel about them? Usually, this leaves the two or four you ‘settle’ dating, or at least pursuing. Some lucky people are able to get it right the first or second time, but really, how lucky can you expect to be?
Proximity plays a big part in attraction, since you can’t expect to pair up with someone you never see (i.e, Natalie Portman will never date you.) Proximity also surfaces in committed relationships. A healthy dose of one another is ideal for blossoming relationships; overexposure or underexposure are strains that fray. Counter to popular culture, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.
The principle of proximity is also a part of attraction by familiarity. The more you see a person, the more you are familiar with them, the more you like them. This is called the mere-exposure effect. Songs, clothing, commercials, etc, are also things that are more well-liked with repeated exposure. On the other hand, familiarity is also known to breed contempt. Therefore, the more pleasant interactions you have with another, obviously the more you are apt to like them.
A super-hot super-available person just moves in next door to you. Yes! Proximity! Something can come of this, thank you relationship gods! But wait! This person has no interest in you. Does this mean that we should stop drawing little hearts around their name? Most of the time, yes. In the game of attraction, multiple factors can alter how attractive a potential mate is. In fact, what psychologists call the “mate value” can pretty much predict the kind of partner somebody is likely to get.
For example, the beautiful neighbor with style, class, and money in the bank is high on the mate value scale. S/he is likely to only be interested in a mate who has a similar mate value. If you don’t measure up to their standards, nothing good will come out of it. Reciprocity comes into play if mate values are in the same ballpark. Also, someone who is known to like you is oftentimes more attractive to you then if they did not like you.
Similarity in partners is also attractive for many reasons. For one, there is a common thread that you both can talk about and enjoy. Another reason is that it validates your own interest. It was C.S Lewis who said “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’”
Similarity applies to both interests and hobbies as well as age, class, religion, education, and even personality. In one study, similar names were even said to promote attraction!
Think of a relationship in which you have nothing in common with your significant other. It just wouldn’t work. There would be no common activity, nothing to talk about, no common background to build up from. Which begs the question: what’s the point?
And finally, the most obvious. We are attracted to those we find pleasing to the eye. It isn’t something to be denied. Evolutionary psychology explains that the ideal of ‘what is beautiful is good’ is adaptive. Beautiful people are assumed to be nicer, wealthier, healthier, and fertile. Infants given pictures of both an attractive face and an unattractive face will even spend more time gazing at the attractive face. But what is attractive? There does seem to be a collective opinion of attractive across cultures.
Symmetry in facial features is unconsciously one of the biggest predictors of attractiveness. In a well-known study (Rubenstein, 2002), the mathematical average of a number of faces morphed together to make a composite image is the most attractive. The mathematical average combines all the typical features and erases the atypical, leaving a simply “average,” proportional face, the combination of many.
Attractive bodies are also pleasing to look at. In a man, tallness, muscularity, and broad shoulders are considered the most desirable. In a woman, men typically fancy a ‘normal’ sized girl as opposed to an overweight or underweight girl. In another study (Furnham et al., 2005) a waist-to-hip ratio of .7 (waists 30% smaller then the hips), an ‘hourglass’ shape, is the most appealing. Men are indeed attracted to large breasts in women, but not typically if they are disproportionate to the size of the hips. A stocky woman with large breasts would therefore be less attractive then a curvy woman who is more proportionate. (A man’s ideal waist-to-hip ratio is .9)