Psychologists have, for a long time, been interested in attempting to define what people consider to be attractive and to discovering why this is so. This branch of social psychology investigates the way in which we form and modify our impressions and feelings towards others.
Four main factors are consistently identified as playing a major role in interpersonal attraction: proximity, physical attractiveness, similarity, and reciprocity. Proximity refers to the degree of geographic, residential, and other forms of spatial closeness. Proximity plays a very large part in who develop relationships with who, for the simple reason that it increases the chance of coming into contact with a person. It is hard to be attracted to someone with whom you never come into contact – though not impossible with the technologically advanced communication tools of today. Additionally, proximity makes it easier to interact with another person.
Even with today’s new communication tools, it is more difficult to interact with someone from another country than with your neighbour, and likewise, it is more difficult to interact with someone on the other side of the room than it is with the person seated next to you. Indeed, one study on friendships in a police academy found that seating had a greater effect on who became friends than all other factors (Wadsworth Publishing Co., 2000.) Also in the Westgate Apartment study it was shown that the people who lived near mailboxes and stairwells were more popular due to the increased familiarity achieved through recurring meetings. Finally, proximity improves attraction, because of the mere exposure effect, which refers to the fact that – assuming an initial positive attraction – people tend to like another person more with each subsequent exposure to that person.
It has been found, that whether they like to admit it or not, all people are more attracted to those they perceive as physically attractive. This not only affects intimate relationships, but friendships too – that is, people prefer friends that are physically attractive. There are many reasons why this may be so. From an evolutionary perspective, humans may pursue physically attractive mates, because attractiveness was associated with fertility. Also, humans have an innate tendency to appreciate aesthetic beauty in general.
According to the reinforcement theory, when a person is paired with a positive effect, attraction towards that person increases. We may get a pleasing feeling just by gazing at a physically attractive person and so our attraction grows. If the relationship is intimate, feelings of pride and prestige may also be associated with a good-looking partner, thus providing more reinforcement for attraction. An attractive person is often perceived as having other desirable qualities, such as intelligence, sensitivity, kindness, and self-confidence – this is known as the halo effect, because the physical beauty casts a more positive light over the person. Indeed, physically attractive people often have a more healthy confidence in themselves, because they tend to be treated well by others and thus they feel better.
Studies have shown that not only do physically attractive people draw greater attraction, but they also receive better treatment in a variety of forms. They are punished less as children, they are perceived as smarter by their teachers, they receive more assistance from others, they receive better job recommendations, and they receive lighter sentences in the criminal justice system.
The judicial area is not immune to bias when it comes to physical attraction. In an experiment by Michael Efran (1974) he surveyed University of Toronto students about the relationship between presumption of guilt and attractiveness; they emphatically exclaimed physical attraction should not affect the assumption of guilt. Nonetheless, after Efran interrogated different students
with photographs of both an attractive and an unattractive party, they determined the most attractive defendant was least guilty. Correspondingly, they advocated the lowest levels of punishment for that person, as shown in the graph below.
Although this seems to point towards life being overwhelming lop-sided in favour of the beautiful, it is only on average over a large group that these advantages arise and even then, the observed advantage is slight. Plus, in some occasions, physical appeal works against a person. For example, the movie star effect is when a person is so good looking that they are approached less, because people are intimidated, in a sense. This relates to the matching hypothesis, which proposes that people of approximately the same attractiveness match up with each other.
Though the saying goes “opposites attract,” research has shown that people are generally more attracted by similarity. Friendships and intimate relationships are more likely to form between people of similar age, race, religion, and socio-economic class. This is mostly due to social norms, which are behaviour patterns that people are expected to follow. Often, people simply avoid relationships with others that would be deemed “inappropriate” and even they do not, they may face external interference from friends and family members. In addition to similar demographics, similarity in attitudes can be a very important factor in attraction.
Attitudes include activity preferences; people who want to do the same activities increase their chances of being attracted to each other. Also, we often relate well or resonate with people who share our viewpoints. We expect that those who share our attitudes will approve of us and since we want to be looked on favourably, this contributes to attraction. A study by Cattell ; Nesselrod showed that stable marriages were more likely to show similarities in personality between partners than between those in an unstable marriage.
Reciprocity, or mutual exchange, is the fourth significant factor of attraction. People tend to like people that like them. Displays of warmth and affection have a way of eliciting the same from the other person. On the other hand, if people think that a person dislikes them, they are more likely to dislike the person as well. We like people that praise us, in a study by Drachman, deCarufel, ; Insko (1978), the male subjects received comments from someone who needed a favour. The people who gave only positive comments were liked the best even when the subjects knew that the flattery was motivated by the need to gain something, or when the flattery was untrue.
Equity theory suggests that a successful relationship exists where each partner receives benefits from the partnership in proportion to the effort they have put into the relationship. These benefits and the amount of effort inputted are not measurable qualities, but rather are perceived individually by the people within the relationship. Thus, as long as a balance is maintained then the relationship will be viewed as attractive to both parties and will continue.
The exchange theory expands on the equity theory and suggests that we view relationships on much the same level as a business person might view a balance sheet in terms of profit and loss. The amount of effort we put into a relationship is in this case viewed as a loss, whereas the benefits we obtain are viewed as a profit. Thus if the benefits derived outweigh the efforts inputted then the relationship would be viewed as being in overall profit and therefore be deemed an attractive proposition. The more ‘profitable’ a relationship was, the more attractive it would seem.
However both these theories view human nature as being essentially selfish, wanting the most out of a relationship for the least effort. This does not take into account the feelings of pleasure some people enjoy when giving as opposed to receiving – the giving in this situation would be viewed as a reward as opposed to the view of the two theories that any form of input is a cost.
The study of interpersonal attraction is one that could foreseeably continue well into the next few centuries or even the next millennium. It is an area of psychology that is extremely intricate and complex in its nature. Attraction is not an area that can be evaluated using standard tests – any form of intervention or lab settings would not produce realistic or truthful results. Even through observing people in their natural environment, it would remain difficult to pinpoint exactly when or why something occurred. Everyone is unique and everybody’s perception of what is attractive is also unique to him or her, which compounds the complexity of this area of research.