Social Psychology – Human Attraction

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

Humans live in societies that are based on mutual attraction and trust. People tend to spend more time and show more involvement in people they like, suggesting that interpersonal attraction – the extent to which others are evaluated as likable or not – is an important factor that governs social relationships [1]. This attraction enables people to meet others and interact with them, form friendships, and even form more intimate relationships based on love and commitment [2]. Although each individual meets many others in the course of their lives, they form relationships with only a few of those people, suggesting that there are particular conditions that lead to attraction and the opportunities to form an acquaintance with people that one is attracted to.

There are a number of Factors that affect human attraction, or at least the opportunity for attraction [1].

  • Proximity: Research shows that the closer two people live, work or study, the more likely are they to meet each other regularly enough to form a relationship of some sort [2]. Studies have shown that students living in dormitories are most likely to form relationships with others on the same floor, and to a lesser extent with people living a floor above or below. Couples living in apartment structures are more likely to strike up friendships with other couples living in nearby apartments, as compared to couples living in a different section of the complex [1, 3]. It seems that proximity allows people to interact more easily, and provides them with more opportunities to interact. This allows the exchange of enough information to assist attraction.
  • Repeated exposure: Cognitive psychology suggests that people form a more favorable attitude towards any object that they become familiar with. It is believed that a novel stimulus (in this case person) is associated with a small measure of anxiety that is a function of novelty. As familiarity increases with repeated exposure, this anxiety reduces, and thus causes a positive attitude [2]. This is what happens when people (or other stimuli) ‘grow on one’. This even occurs when one is not aware of being exposed to the person (like seeing them at a meeting or rally without really noticing). The only caveat to this rule is when the initial contact is particularly negative. At such times, the negative attitude may actually become strengthened with further interactions [1].
  • Emotional response: One’s emotional state when meeting a new person can significantly affect the way they feel about that person [1]. When a stranger does something that arouses some kind of emotional response (by helping in carrying bags, or by pushing to get ahead of the queue), they are evaluated on the basis of that emotion. Thus, the person who helps with bags would receive a positive evaluation, while the person who pushes by would receive a negative one. People also form associations between strangers and an already existing emotional state; particularly if that emotional state is a strong one [4]. For example, someone who is elated about a good score is likely to evaluate anyone he meets in a benevolent light, while someone who is irritated with the traffic they just drove through may develop a negative attitude towards someone who is waiting to meet them. people are more likely to feel attracted towards others who are associated with a positive emotional experience in some way; and are thus, more likely to be attracted towards them and more motivated to form a relationship. This is also suggested by the Affect-centered model of attraction.
  • Physical characteristics: Attractive persons are evaluated more favorably as compared to less attractive persons [3]. The Attractive persons do have an advantage as they are approached more frequently, giving them more opportunities to form relationships. This makes them more popular and helps them develop good inter-personal skills [4]. The body type of the individual and their behavior also influences the way they are perceived. People seem to form positive evaluations of persons whose behavior approximates that described by the prototype of the category they belong to (gender, age or occupation). These people are also deemed more attractive.
  • Situational characteristics: The context in which an individual is viewed also affects the way they are perceived [3]. When seen along with more attractive persons, they are rated as less attractive, while in the company of less attractive persons they are rated as more attractive. The ratings given by same sex peers also play a role, and individuals who are known to be considered attractive are rated higher as compared to others. Finally, when someone believes that their chances to finding a kindred soul are reducing (scarcity of resources); they tend to become more lenient with their ratings [1].

Human Attraction: Becoming Acquainted

It seems evident that a lot of factors influence who is considered attractive, and who is not. But even when we come across someone who we are attracted towards, we do not always form a relationship with them. It is necessary that an individual has a need to interact with someone in order for them to act on their being attracted. Most people have a strong need to affiliate with others [1]. Although different people exhibit this need at different levels, almost everyone shows at least some need to meet others and form relationships with them. People with a high need to affiliate tend to take more effect to interact with others in general, while those low on this need are more aloof in their inter-personal relationships. Situational changes can also affect an individual’s need to affiliate [3]. When aroused by a particular event of interest, people tend to show a higher need to affiliate. This is possibly what makes strangers interact and form relationships during times of duress.

Similarity with the individual is another factor that leads to the development of an acquaintance [3]. People whose attitudes are similar to one’s own are considered more attractive and help create a sense of balance – a positive mental state that is achieved when others validate our opinions [2]. Besides attitudes, people are more likely to form acquaintances with others who are similar in one or more ways, be it gender, age, physical appearance, area of study or work, and such other factors. This may be because a similar other not only validates our choices, but also provides an opportunity to understand how we are viewed by outsiders [2, 4].

As similarity increases, so does a reciprocal liking [1]. A similar other is more likely to evaluate one in a positive light, since they are able to understand and empathize with one’s motivations better, understand behavioral choices and reinforce a positive self-image. Such reciprocity then further increases the attraction between two people, and enables them to develop their acquaintance further [3, 4].

References

[1] Baron, Robert A. “Interpersonal Attraction and Close Relationships”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 224 – 267.

[2] Baumeister, Roy F. & Bushman Brad J. “Attraction and Exclusion”. In Social Psychology & Human Nature (2nd ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 232 – 350.

[3] DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Interpersonal Attraction and Relationships”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 144 – 165.

[4] Kassin, Saul M., Fein, Steven & Markus, Hazel Rose. “Attraction and Close Relationships” In Social psychology (8th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010. Pp. 203 – 250.