Attraction Theories

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Type of psychology: Social psychology Field of study: Interpersonal relations

Theories of interpersonal attraction attempt to specify the conditions that lead people to like, and in some cases love, each other. Attraction is a two-way process, involving not only the person who is attracted but also the attractor.

Key concepts

• equity theory

• matching phenomenon

• mere exposure

physical attractiveness stereotype

• reciprocity

• reinforcement model

• social exchange theory

Relationships are central to human social existence. Personal accounts by people who have been forced to endure long periods of isolation serve as reminders of people's dependence on others, and research suggests that close relationships are the most vital ingredient in a happy and meaningful life. In short, questions dealing with attraction are among the most fundamental in social psychology.

The major theories addressing interpersonal attraction have a common theme: reinforcement. The principle of reinforcement is one of the most basic notions in all of psychology. Put simply, it states that behaviors that are followed by desirable consequences (often these take the form of rewards) tend to be repeated. Applied to interpersonal relations, this principle suggests that when one person finds something rewarding in an interaction with another person (or if that person anticipates some reward in a relationship that has not yet been established), then the person should desire further interaction with that other individual. In behavioral terms, this is what is meant by the term "interpersonal attraction," which emerges in everyday language in such terms as "liking" or, in the case of deep involvement, "loving." Appropriately, these theories, based on the notion that individuals are drawn to relationships that are rewarding and avoid those that are not, are known as reinforcement or reward models of interpersonal attraction.

The first and most basic theory of this type was proposed in the early 1970's by Donn Byrne and Gerald Clore. Known as the reinforcement-affect model of attraction ("affect" means "feeling" or "emotion"), this theory proposes that people will be attracted not only to other people who reward them but also to those people whom they associate with rewards. In other words, a person can learn to like others through their connections to experiences that are positive for that individual. It is important to recognize that a major implication here is that it is possible to like someone not so much because of that person himself or herself but rather as a consequence of that person's merely being part of a rewarding situation; positive feelings toward the experience itself get transferred to that other person. (It also follows that a person associated with something unpleasant will tend to be disliked.) This is called indirect reinforcement.

For example, in one experiment done during the summer, people who evaluated new acquaintances in a cool and comfortable room liked them better than when in a hot and uncomfortable room. In another, similar, study subjects rating photographs of strangers gave more favorable evaluations when in a nicely furnished room than when they were in a dirty room with shabby furniture. These findings provide some insight into why married couples may find that their relationship benefits from a weekend trip away from the children or a romantic dinner at a favorite restaurant; the pleasant event enhances their feelings for each other.

There are other models of interpersonal attraction that involve the notion of rewards but consider the degree to which they are offset by the costs associated with a relationship. Social exchange theory suggests that people tend to evaluate social situations. In the context of a relationship, a person will compare the costs and benefits of beginning or continuing that relationship. Imagine, for example, that Karen is considering a date with Dave, who is kind, attractive, and financially stable but fifteen years older. Karen may decide that this relationship is not worth pursuing because of the disapproval of her mother and father, who believe strongly that their daughter should be dating a man her own age. Karen's decision will be influenced by how much she values the approval of her parents and by whether she has dating alternatives available.

A third model of attraction, equity theory, extends social exchange theory. This approach suggests that it is essential to take into account how both parties involved in a relationship assess the costs and benefits. When each person believes that his or her own ratio of costs to benefits is fair (or equitable), then attraction between the two tends to be promoted. On the other hand, a relationship may be placed in jeopardy if one person thinks that the time, effort, and other resources being invested are justified, while the other person does not feel that way.

Considering the rewards involved in the process of interpersonal attraction provides a useful model but one that is rather general. To understand attraction fully, one must look more specifically at what people find rewarding in relationships. Social psychological research has established some definite principles governing attraction that can be applied within the reward framework.

Factors of Attraction

The first determinant of attraction, reciprocity, is probably fairly obvious, as it most directly reflects the reinforcement process; nevertheless, it is a pow-

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Determinants of attraction include reciprocity and proximity. (CLEO Photography)

erful force: People tend to like others who like them. There are few things more rewarding than genuine affection, support, concern, and other indicators that one is liked by another person.

The second principle, proximity, suggests that simple physical closeness tends to promote attraction. Research has confirmed what many people probably already know: People are most likely to become friends (or romantic partners) with others with whom they have worked, grown up, or gone to school. Other studies have shown that people living in dormitories or apartments tend to become friends with the neighbors who live closest to them. Simply being around people gives an individual a chance to interact with them, which in turn provides the opportunity to learn who is capable of providing the rewards sought in a relationship.

It seems, however, that there is yet another force at work, a very basic psychological process known as the mere exposure phenomenon. Research has demonstrated consistently that repeated exposure to something new tends to increase one's liking for it, and examples of the process are quite common in everyday life. It is not uncommon, for example, for a person to buy a new tape or compact disc by a favorite musical artist without actually having heard the new material, only to be disappointed upon listening to it. The listener soon discovers, however, that the album "grows" on him or her and finds himself or herself liking it quite a bit after hearing it a few times. Such occurrences probably involve the mere exposure phenomenon. In short, familiarity breeds liking, and physical closeness makes it possible for that familiarity to develop.

Beauty and Romance

Generally speaking, the same factors that promote the development of friendships also foster romantic attraction. The third principle of attraction, physical attractiveness, is somewhat of an exception, however, as it is more powerful in the romantic context.

In a classic study published by Elaine Hatfield Walster and her associates in 1966, first-year men and women at the University of Minnesota were randomly paired for dates to a dance. Prior to the date, these students had provided considerable information about themselves, some of it through personality tests. During the evening, each person individually completed a questionnaire that focused primarily on how much that person liked his or her date, and the participants were contacted for follow-up six months later. Despite the study of complex facts about attraction, such as what kinds of personality traits within a couple promote it, the only significant factor in this experiment's results was physical appearance. For both sexes, the better-looking the partner, the more the person liked his or her date, the stronger was the desire to date the person again, and the more likely the individual was actually to do so during the next six months.

The potent effect of physical attractiveness in this study sparked much interest in this variable on the part of researchers over the next decade or so. The earliest studies determined rather quickly that both men and women, given the opportunity to select a date from among several members of the opposite sex, almost invariably would select the most attractive one. In reallife dating, however, there is usually the chance that the person asking another out might be turned down. When later experiments began building the possibility of rejection into their procedures, an interesting effect emerged, one that has been termed the "matching phenomenon." People tend to select romantic partners whose degree of attractiveness is very similar to their own.

Other research revealed that physically attractive people are often judged favorably on qualities other than their appearance. Even when nothing is known but what the person looks like, the physically attractive individual is thought to be happier, more intelligent, and more successful than someone who is less attractive. This finding is referred to as the "physical attractiveness stereotype," and it has implications that extend the role of appearance well beyond the matter of dating. Studies have shown, for example, that work (such as a writing sample) will be assessed more favorably when produced by an attractive person than when by someone less attractive, and that a cute child who misbehaves will be treated more leniently than a homely one. What is beautiful is also good, so to speak. Finally, one may note that physical attractiveness fits well with the reward model: It is pleasant and reinforcing both to look at an attractive person and to be seen with him or her, particularly if that person is one's date.

The last principle of attraction, similarity, is the most important one in long-term relationships, regardless of whether they are friendships or ro mances. An extremely large body of research has demonstrated consistently that the more similar two people are, especially attitudinally, the more they will like each other. It turns out that the old adage, "opposites attract," is simply false. (Note that the matching phenomenon also reflects similarity.) A friend or spouse who holds attitudes similar to one's own will provide rewards by confirming that one's own feelings and beliefs are correct; it is indeed reinforcing when someone else agrees.

Evolutionary Theories of Attraction

Evolutionary psychologists have provided an important new way to look at why individuals are attracted to others. Borrowing from the basic theorizing of the English biologist Charles Darwin, psychologists are paying increasing attention to the information provided by both physical and social features of living creatures. Everyone is influenced by what people look like; they form impressions of others before they even hear them speak. People often use the appearance and behavior of others to make a variety of judgments about them. These judgments are made quickly and unconsciously and are fairly resistant to change. What sort of impressions are formed? What aspects of a person are focused upon? Evolutionary psychology has some answers to these questions.

Specifically, evolutionary psychologists suggest that the attractiveness of a person's body serves as a valuable and subtle indicator of social behavior, social relationship potential, fitness, reproductive value, and health. Evolutionary psychologists place heavy emphasis on clearly observable features of human bodies and do not focus as much on internal, unobservable aspects of personality such as kindness or trustworthiness. There is a growing body of research that supports these ideas. For example, significant relationships were found between attractiveness and measures of mental health, social anxiety, and popularity, so the idea behind evolutionary theory does seem to be relevant.

Most work studying how body characteristics relate to attractiveness has focused on a single factor, such as the face, although many features of the body can influence attractiveness. Faces are often the first part of a person that is looked at. Furthermore, the face is almost always clearly visible (except for those of women in cultures that forbid it). Social psychologists have shown that people often make quick judgments about others based on their faces, and more than 80 percent of studies on judging attractiveness have focused on the face alone. The sex, age, and past experiences of the perceiver, specific facial features such as large lips for women and strong jaws for men, body and facial symmetry, and specific body ratios such as the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR, the number attained by dividing the waist measurement by the circumference of the hips) all influence judgments of attractiveness. Consistent with this idea are findings that some standards of attractiveness are consistent across time and cultures. For example, people with symmetrical faces—those whose eyes and ears appear to be of equal size and equal distances apart—are preferred over people who do not have symmetrical faces.

Female Shapeliness

Another example of a body characteristic that is tied to attractiveness from an evolutionary perspective is women's WHR. Around the world, men prefer women with lower WHRs (between 0.7 and 0.8). Evolutionary psychology research emphasizes the importance of WHRs as a major force in social perception and attraction because shape is a very visible sign of the location of fat stores. This consequently signals reproductive potential and health. Low WHRs do indeed directly map onto higher fertility, lower stress levels, and resistance to major diseases. For example, women with WHRs of 0.8 are almost 10 percent more likely to get pregnant than women with WHRs around 0.9.

Although not as much research has focused on the female breast as a signaler of reproductive fitness, a variety of studies suggest that it is also an important factor, although the evidence is mixed. Some studies support the commonly held stereotype that men prefer larger breasts, although others seem to show no such preference. In contrast, some studies have showed that small and medium breasts are preferred to larger breasts, but much of this work focused either on the bust or on WHRs, not both together. Unfortunately, methodological restrictions and poor stimulus materials limit the generalizability of most previous work using WHRs and other bodily features. For example, many studies used line drawings of figures or verbal descriptions of figures instead of pictures of real people. Research is currently under way to provide clearer tests of evolutionary psychology theories of attraction.

The most consistently documented finding on the evolutionary basis of attraction relates to gender differences in human mate choice. Consistent with Darwin's ideas that humans are naturally programmed to behave in ways to ensure that their genes will be passed on to future generations (ensuring survival), evidence indicates that men tend to prefer young, healthy-looking mates, as these characteristics are associated with the delivery of healthy babies. An examination of the content of more than eight hundred personal advertisements found that men stressed attractiveness and youth in mates more than did women, a finding supported by marriage statistics throughout the twentieth century. Women have been shown to place more emphasis on a prospective mate's social status and financial status, and these traits are often related to being able to take good care of children. The fact that women in Western societies are achieving higher economic positions, however, would suggest that this pattern of preferences may change in time.

Historical Development

Although it would seem to be of obvious importance, physical appearance as a determinant of romantic attraction was simply neglected by researchers until the mid-1960's. Perhaps they mistakenly assumed the widespread existence of an old ideal that one should judge someone on the basis of his or her intrinsic worth, not on the basis of a superficial characteristic. Nevertheless, when the Minnesota study discussed earlier produced a physical attractiveness effect so strong as to eliminate, or at least obscure, any other factors related to attraction in the context of dating, social psychologists took notice. In any science, surprising or otherwise remarkable findings usually tend to stimulate additional research, and such a pattern definitely describes the course of events in this area of inquiry.

By around 1980, social psychology had achieved a rather solid understanding of the determinants of attraction to strangers, and the field began turning more of its attention to the nature of continuing relationships. Social psychologist Zick Rubin had first proposed a theory of love in 1970, and research on that topic flourished in the 1980's as investigators examined such topics as the components of love, different types of love, the nature of love in different kinds of relationships, and the characteristics of interaction in successful long-term relationships. Still other lines of research explored how people end relationships or attempt to repair those that are in trouble.

People view relationships with family, friends, and lovers as central to their happiness, a research finding that is totally consistent with common experience. One need only look at the content of motion pictures, television programs, song lyrics, novels, and poetry, in which relationships, particularly romantic ones, are so commonly a theme, to find evidence for that point. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, however, and the lack of love in the relationship is usually a precipitating factor. Whatever social psychology can teach people about what determines and maintains attraction can help improve the human condition.

Sources for Further Study

Berscheid, Ellen, and Harry T. Reis. "Attraction and Close Relationships." In The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2, edited by Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindsey. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998. An in-depth review of theories of attraction and a good summary of research findings.

Berscheid, Ellen, and Elaine Hatfield Walster. Interpersonal Attraction. 2d ed. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1978. Presents a solid overview of the psychology ofattraction. Directed toward the reader with no background in social psychology, the book is quite readable. It is highly regarded and frequently cited within the field. Clever illustrations feature many cartoons.

Buss, David M. Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1999. A readable book about the ways in which evolutionary science can help the study of social behavior. Good sections on mating strategies and the factors determining attraction.

Duck, Steve. Relating to Others. Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1988. Deals briefly with the traditional work on interpersonal attraction but is most notable for being devoted primarily to reviewing the research on personal relationships, which became important in the 1980's. Covers such topics as developing and maintaining relationships, exclusivity in relationships, and repairing and ending them.

Hatfield, Elaine, and Susan Sprecher. Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986. A thorough and readable review of all the different effects of personal appearance. Explores how judgments of attractiveness are made and addresses the effects of beauty across the entire life span. Nicely supported with effective photographs and illustrations.

Langlois, Judith H., et al. "Maxims or Myths or Beauty? A Meta-analytic and Theoretical Review." Psychological Bulletin 126, no. 3 (2000): 390-423. Provides a wonderful resource by reviewing many articles that look at the factors that predict attractiveness. Also uses the evolutionary approach to explain some of the findings.

Myers, David G. Social Psychology. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. This popular social psychology textbook features an unusually good chapter on interpersonal attraction. Offers a solid survey of the research relating to the principles of attraction and provides good coverage of work on love. The author's engaging writing style makes this an excellent starting point for further exploration of the topic.

Steve A. Nida; updated by Regan A. R Gurung

See also: Affiliation and Friendship.

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