Couple gazing

Mechanisms of Initial Attraction

By Brittany Fasano

April 30, 2014

Story Highlights:

  • Most people value a sense of humor when seeking a partner, based on an informal survey of 64 adults conducted by the reporter.
  • Similarity breeds attraction: most people are attracted to those who are familiar and similar.
  • Couples can keep the fire going in their relationship with the help of attraction research.
Couple on a date
Photo credit: pmorgan via photopin cc&lt

SAN DIEGO- In the past decade, researchers have begun studying more intimately the causes of initial romantic attraction.

Whether its lust at first sight or a relationship that’s meant to be, everyone in the dating scene has preferable characteristics in mind.

According to an informal survey conducted by the reporter, 64 adults aged 18 and older were asked, “What attracts you the most to a person when you first meet him/her?” The most common answers were sense of humor, a smile and face.

The informal survey was mostly comprised of females at 66.2 percent in comparison to 33.8 percent that were male. A majority of the participants were college undergraduates, ranging in ages from 18 to 25.

When asked about specific characteristics that lead to initial attraction, survey respondents rated looks and sense of humor as most important. In addition, respondents rated money as the least important characteristic.

When you first meet someone how important are the following characteristics: intelligence, looks, sense of humor, money, education, height.
While the current survey, which was distributed through social media, assesses attraction for college-age students, past research has examined more specifically the underlying mechanisms of initial attraction with varying populations and mixed results.

Past Research: Similarity

A pivotal aspect of attraction research includes studying similarity of prospective dating partners. Similarity studies have been widely cited in psychological research on relationships and attraction.

One of the most widely cited studies is a 1965 study on attraction, “Attraction as a Linear Function of Proportion of Positive Reinforcements,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers discovered that the proportion of similarity, liking others who are like us, is more important for attraction than overall number of similar attitudes. This study laid the foundation for many subsequent studies and paved the way for the ideology of the importance of similarity in attraction.

How Similar Do You Want Your Partner to be on the Following Topics?

According to the reporter’s informal survey, respondents prefer dating partners who are similar in religion, education, politics and age. A majority of respondents did not have a preference for a partner’s taste in music or income, with nearly 45 percent of participants rating the importance of music and income similarity as neutral.

How similar do you want your partner to be on the following topics: religion, education, politics, music, income, age.

As the graph shows, individuals prefer partners who have similar interests and attitudes, especially on issues that are important to them.

Dating research findings.In the present survey, a majority of participants were college students, which reflects in the importance of education in a dating partner, with 86 percent of participants rating similarity as important.

Where past psychological research focuses on broad ideas, present research findings build upon these concepts.

The Speed Dating Approach:

In one study published in the journal Personal Relationships, “Speed-dating as an invaluable tool for studying romantic attraction: A methodological primer,” Eli Finkel, Paul Eastwick and Jacob Matthews used speed dating as a method to study initial romantic attraction.

Participants attended an event where they experienced brief dates, or speed dates, with a series of potential romantic partners. The results provided an alternative explanation for why women tend to be more selective when choosing a mate.

“Speed-dating is terrific because you can capture initial attraction as it is actually happening in the moment,” said Eastwick. “With respect to the particular finding about selectivity, there is a tendency for people to approach things that they like, and sometimes it works in reverse: we like things because we have approached them.”

Additional findings demonstrated that initial attraction may not be dependent on sex, but rather on who is approaching whom. Researchers found that whichever sex was approaching, or moving from table to table, tended to be more attracted to the other participants. The participants who remained seated were more likely to be more selective of approaching partners.

“This is what we think is happening when we ask people to rate at a speed-dating event—they approach others repeatedly and are thus a little bit more likely to like them,” said Eastwick.

When being approached, individuals gain control over the situation, which is one reason why women tend to have more control in dating scenarios: men are more likely to approach women.

While these underlying mechanisms to attraction can be studied with experiments, survey respondents answer what they actively find attractive in a potential partner. When it comes to deciding which potential dating partners to approach, there are numerous characteristics people find attractive.

What Characteristics Do You Find the Most Attractive?

According to the reporter’s informal survey, respondents found brown hair the most attractive at 75 percent.

What hair color do you find the most attractive: brown, black, blonde, other.

Respondents also found a fit body the most attractive at 56 percent in comparison to average body size at 25 percent, curvy body size at 10.9, and thin body size at 6.3.

What body size do you find the most attractive: thin, curvy, average, fit, other

While similarity breeds attraction, certain studies show that physical attractiveness leads to different outcomes.

Pursued Sexual and Romantic Outcomes:

University of Notre Dame Sociologist Elizabeth McClintock found in one of her studies, “Handsome Wants as Handsome Does: Physical Attractiveness and Gender Differences in Revealed Sexual Preferences,” published in Biodernography and Social Biology, found that physically attractive women are more likely to form exclusive relationships as opposed to purely sexual relationships.

“Couple formation is often conceptualized as a competitive, two-sided matching process in which individuals implicitly trade their assets for those of a mate, trying to find the most desirable partner and most rewarding relationship that they can get given their own assets,” McClintock said in a Notre Dame Press Release.

“This market metaphor has primarily been applied to marriage markets and focused on the exchange of income or status for other desired resources such as physical attractiveness, but it is easily extended to explain partner selection in the young adult premarital dating market as well,” she said.

McClintock’s study shows that attractive women are less likely to engage in sexual intercourse within the first week of meeting a partner. In addition, weight is related to number of sexual partners, where thinner women have fewer partners.

This difference may arise because more physically attractive women use their power to control the relationship outcomes. Basically, studies show that attractive women have fewer sex partners and more exclusive relationships.

These findings may sound counter-intuitive, but when put into perspective, the more attractive a woman is, the more power she has in a relationship and the more selective she can become.

The strongest force by far in partner selection is similarity—in education, race, religion and physical attractiveness, said McClintock. The vast majority of couples select partners who are similar to themselves in both status and attractiveness.

While McClintock and Eastwick’s research shows individual attraction, one study demonstrates how attractive people appear within the context of a group setting.

People Seem More Attractive in a Group:

Group of Cheerleaderes
Photo credit: San Diego Shooter via photopin cc

People tend to rate others as more attractive when they’re part of a group than when they’re alone, according to UC San Diego researchers Drew Walker and Edward Vul.

People tend to “average out” the features of faces in a group, which leads to individuals perceiving faces as more average than they would be otherwise. This “Cheerleader Affect,” a term coined by Barney Stinson on the popular TV show “How I Met Your Mother,” has been recently studied by psychologists. In the study, “Hierarchical Encoding Makes Individuals in a Group Seem More Attractive,” published in Psychological Science, researchers tested this idea by showing participants photos of other people who were either alone or next to others.

Participants rated the attractiveness of the person or people in the photos. Participants consistently rated both male and female faces as more attractive in the group condition compared to the alone condition, even though the faces were exactly the same in both conditions.

These findings show that people find average faces very attractive. Composite faces, which are created by averaging individual faces together, are rated significantly more attractive than the original individual faces.

“Average faces are more attractive, likely due to the averaging out of unattractive idiosyncrasies,” said Walker in a November 2013 article in The Atlantic.

What Does all the Psychology Research Tell Us?:

Initial attraction may seem like an elusive occurrence, but researchers are able to find otherwise.

Sociologist Jen Gunsaullus, a relationship and intimacy counselor, helps clients find meaningful relationships and maintain that attraction they once felt for each other.

“People are attracted to people who they see more—it’s a familiarity and comfort thing,” said Gunsaullus. “Also, people are more likely to be attracted to people who are like them in terms of having a quick connection based on life experiences, worldview, culture, religious beliefs and political beliefs.”

Desire is a tricky thing and there are a lot of factors that reduce desire in long-term relationships, she said.

According to Gunsaullus, initial attraction leads to both dating and sexual appeal. For couples, attraction of all aspects may dissipate over time:

I recommend couples do a lot of things to keep their fire going or to rekindle their desire, such as discussing fantasies, finding out each others’ love languages so they each are feeling loved and cared for, playing with their five senses with each other in the bedroom, discussing and trying new ways to feel sexual pleasure, reading erotica together to feel desire, and carving out weekly intimacy time if you’ve haven’t been connecting that way.

Researchers and relationship professionals agree that one of the most important aspects of attraction is similarity.

“People are attracted to others who are like themselves,” said San Diego State University Psychology Professor Sara Unsworth. “People like to find in others an agreement with their own characteristics and view of life.”

However an initial spark is created, the bridge from initial attraction to a love relationship is guided by the foundation of similarity.

For individuals seeking a love relationship or for new couples trying to build on initial attraction, finding someone who is similar in characteristics, such as age, race, religion, social class, personality, education, intelligence and attitude, can lead to romantic love.

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