views updated Jun 11 2018


Attraction is an interactive process that involves one person who transmits verbal, visual, or other stimuli, and another who responds more or less positively to those stimuli. Early research viewed the attraction response as an attitude toward the target person that included favorable evaluations and the expectation that approach behaviors, such as a willingness to work with or date the person, were likely to be rewarding. Later, attraction was seen as having emotional components, which included the possibility of ambivalent feelings of simultaneous liking and disliking (Berscheid and Reis 1998). Recently, it was recognized that attraction also involves motivational qualities, such as a yearning or desire for connection with a person, based on the perception that he or she is fit to satisfy one or more of the perceiver's needs. The motivational analysis of attraction suggests that satisfaction is produced if a relationship with an attractive person is established, disappointment occurs if the other person rejects the relationship, and sadness or anger follows if a relationship is first formed, then broken (Baumeister and Leary 1995).

The motivational analysis also notes that the perceiver's motives determine the criteria used for judging the attractiveness of the other person, and such criteria may vary depending on whether the perceiver needs a long-term romantic partner, friend, mentor, employee, or a child to adopt (Cunningham et al. 1995). Thus, the motivational analysis suggests that attraction is influenced by characteristics of the target person being evaluated as attractive; by the perceiver's needs, feelings and traits; and by the situation in which the perceiver is exposed to the target, which may influence both the perception of the stimulus and the positivity of the response. Much of the research on interpersonal attraction focused on evaluations of potential romantic partners, but many of the variables are relevant to other forms of relationships as well.

Situational Factors in Attraction

The first step in attraction is being aware of the people to whom one might be attracted. Attraction is remarkably easy to stimulate; the more likely there is contact between people, the more likely they are to become attracted. A classic study by Leon Festinger and his associates (1950) demonstrated that the number of friends that a person had in college was best predicted by proximity, or a person's accessibility for interaction. The researchers found that students whose dorm rooms were centrally located made more friends than those whose rooms were isolated. Accessibility increased the opportunity both for positive social contact and for familiarity. Research on familiarity demonstrated that people reported greater liking for others the more that they were shown the other people's photographs, even when the exposures were brief and not consciously noted. This mere exposure effect is quite powerful, but only works if the stimuli initially evoke either neutral or positive feelings, which can produce a sense of comfort and security. If someone is repeatedly exposed to an obnoxious person, then repulsion may increase disproportionately, in a process termed a social allergy (Cunningham, Barbee, and Druen 1997).

Physical proximity is not the only basis of interaction accessibility. People can become attracted to people whom they encounter on television, and can now meet people from other countries almost as easily as they can meet people from their own neighborhoods using e-mail and the Internet. Nor is it necessary to meet someone in order to be attracted to the person. Sometimes, simply being aware of the prospect of future interaction with a target person can increase liking. Ellen Berscheid and her colleagues (1976) found that research participants increased their liking for an individual after learning that they would be going out on a blind date with the person, compared to people whom they believed they would not meet. Most people seem inclined to like those whom they encounter in their social environment.

Attraction also may be increased as a function of the time of night that one is making an evaluation. Susan Sprecher (1984) found that the later in the evening that people were asked to evaluate members of the opposite sex in a bar, the more positively the people were rated. Apparently, standards go down as the prospect of loneliness goes up. This tendency was more evident for working people than for college students, perhaps because the latter may have more chances to meet members of the opposite sex.

Situational factors that alter the emotional and motivational state of the perceiver may increase attraction to another person, if the other person seems appropriate for the way that the individual is feeling. For example, men who were instructed to read a sexually arousing passage from a novel rated pictures of women, especially ones whom the men thought might be their blind dates, as more attractive than did men who were not sexually aroused (Stephan, Berscheid, and Walster 1971). Although positive feelings often generalize to create more positive evaluations of other people, there are times when negative feelings can induce attraction. Individuals who are experiencing anxious arousal, such as before a dental exam or prior to crossing a high, scary bridge, often respond more positively to friendly and attractive people than they do at other times (Foster et al. 1998). For example, men who were induced to feel depressed by watching sad movies were particularly attracted to women who appeared warm and supportive, even if the women were not particularly beautiful. By contrast, men who were induced to feel elated by watching an upbeat movie were particularly attracted to a beautiful but cool woman, who presented an intriguing challenge (Cunningham, Druen, and Barbee 1997).

Target Factors in Attraction

The way that a potential target of attraction introduces him- or herself, and communicates personality and intentions, can affect whether attraction occurs. Men have traditionally been more likely than women to make the first overt move in relationship initiation. Although this may be changing, much of the research on attraction has focused on men as the initiators and women as the targets of romantic overtures. People are attracted to people who express liking for them; just knowing that someone is attracted to oneself tends to induce reciprocal interest. Reciprocal self-disclosure, in the form of taking turns in revealing details about oneself, can foster attraction. Reciprocal liking can also be indicated nonverbally (e.g., Grammer, Kruck, and Magnusson 1998). Women who maintain eye contact with a man, for example, or flip their hair, or lean towards him, may communicate their interest. Unfortunately, men may sometimes misinterpret casual female friendliness for sexual interest.

In first encounters, people often ingratiate, flatter, and praise people whose favor they are trying to win, and modify their self-presentations to be what the other person seeks (Rowatt, Cunningham, and Druen 1998). Although most people enjoy hearing praise, ingratiation can backfire and produce dislike if the flattered person suspects that the flatterer is self-serving rather than sincere. A second exception to the rule that people like compliments and flattery was offered by Ellen Berscheid and her associates. An evaluator who was initially critical of a target, and later changed his or her mind and expressed approval, was rated more positively than was an evaluator who was consistently positive to a target. The attraction to the re-evaluator may have been due to a sudden reduction of tension, because the effect was not observed when the same person was simultaneously exposed to a consistently positive evaluator, along with a second evaluator who shifted from negative to positive. Such complexities may help explain why "playing hard to get" does not reliably increase attraction.

A sense of humor is a positively rated quality, and being perceived as humorous can increase attraction. This is especially true for men. Duane Lundy and colleagues (1998) found that women rated physically attractive men who expressed humor as more desirable than they rated physically attractive non-humorous men. Physically attractive men who expressed self-deprecating humor were seen as more cheerful, and perhaps more humane and less threatening, than non-humorous handsome men. But, humor that people perceive as threatening can backfire. Michael Cunningham studied opening lines in bars. Humorously flippant comments (e.g., "You remind me of someone I used to date") were least effective in generating attraction, whereas direct (e.g., "I'm a little embarrassed about this, but I'd really like to meet you") or innocuous lines (e.g. "What do you think of the music?") were more successful. Such outcomes are consistent with research that indicated that women are attracted to dominant men only when the men are also agreeable and nice ( Jensen-Campbell, Graziano, and West 1995). Extremely dominant behavior, without kindness and gentleness, can be intimidating rather than attractive to women.

Physical attractiveness has a tremendous influence on first encounters, perhaps because it appears to convey a great deal of information about the person. The Multiple Fitness model of physical attractiveness, advanced by Cunningham and his colleagues (1995), suggests that five categories of features influence social perception and attraction. Babyish features, such as large eyes, a small nose, smooth skin, and light coloration suggest youthful openness. By contrast, sexual maturity features suggest strength, dominance, and fitness to perform sex-role tasks. Such maturity features include high cheekbones, narrow cheeks, prominent breasts, and a 0.70 ratio of waist to hips in women, and a wide chin, thick eyebrows, evidence of facial hair, a prominent chest, and a 1.0 ratio of waist to hips in men. Sexual maturity features that are asymmetrical, or that deviate substantially from the population average, may indicate low biological fitness. However, biological qualities, such as youthfulness, fertility, or virility, are not the only determinants of physical attractiveness. Expressive features, such as highly set eyebrows and a large smile, are attractive by conveying friendliness and supportiveness.

A combination of exceptional features, including ideal babyish, sexually mature, and expressive characteristics, were seen as attractive by whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. By contrast, the desirability of grooming features tends to be seen differently across cultures. Grooming features, such as body weight, hairstyle, cosmetics, and tattoos, may be attractive in themselves, or may accentuate other attractive qualities. In addition, some grooming features may reflect a learned desire for status symbols or novelty, whereas other grooming features may reflect adaptations to the local ecology. Analyses of sixty-two cultures indicated that preferences for slenderness, for example, were associated with a reliable food supply and greater female social power (Anderson et al. 1992). Finally, senescence features, such as gray hair or baldness, reduced romantic attractiveness, but increased perceived social maturity, wisdom, and attractiveness as a mentor.

Early research observed that favoritism to the physically attractive extended beyond romantic dating to teacher evaluations, friendship choices, employment decisions, and jury verdicts. Subsequent research indicated that different dimensions of physical attractiveness may be responsible for such preferences. Individuals who frequently smile may make better friends than their gloomy counterparts (Harker and Keltner 2001).

Perceiver Factors in Attraction

Response to attractive stimuli depends on the perceiver as well as the stimulus. People's response to a target's physical attractiveness, for example, is influenced by the number of strikingly attractive people that they have recently viewed, by the opinions of other people, and by how invested they are in their current relationship.

Similarity involves a match between the target and the perceiver. People tend to like others who seem similar to themselves in attitudes and beliefs and, to a much lesser extent, in personality and physical attractiveness (Byrne 1971). Similarity in attitudes helps to avoid conflict, and the agreement of others helps to validate one's own opinions. Such validation is particularly attractive when people feel threatened or insecure.

One exception to the similarity-attraction rule is that women are often initially attracted to men who are the opposite of themselves, by being stereotypically masculine and task-focused. Conversely, men are attracted to women who are stereotypically feminine, expressive, and relationshipfocused. William Ickes (1993) suggested that this opposites-attract tendency is ironic, because relationships between people who have traditional gender roles are typically less satisfying and more problematic than are relationships between people who are androgynous, having both masculine and feminine qualities.

Some of the cause of attraction to sex-role typical mates may be due to hormones. Researchers who study the effects of hormones on attraction, such as Ian Penton-Voak and his associates (1999), found that women who were at the midpoint of their menstrual cycle, and experiencing higher levels of hormones, rated ruggedly masculine men as more attractive than women who were at other points in their menstrual cycle, who preferred a less masculine male appearance. Further, women at the midpoint of their cycle displayed strongest attraction to t-shirts that had been worn by more robust and symmetrical men, which presumably contained the men's pheromones. Men did not display such olfactory sensitivity (Thornhill and Gangestad 1999).

Sociobiological theory (Cunningham 1981) interpreted attraction in terms of evolutionary dynamics, such as the differential mating requirements of males and females. Men may have greater need than women for a young, healthy, fertile partner, which may be suggested by a partner's physical attractiveness, whereas women may need someone with resources to invest in their offspring, which may be indicated by a partner's wealth and status. Research conducted in thirty-seven cultures suggested that men are more interested than women in potential partners' physical attractiveness, whereas women are more interested than men in potential partners' wealth and status (Buss 1989). Although physical attractiveness and wealth influence attraction, the results of over one hundred studies about what people are looking for in long-term relationships indicated that mate qualities that indicate caring, such as being kind, supportive, and understanding, are more important in attraction to both males and females than material qualities such as physical attractiveness or wealth (Cunningham, Druen, and Barbee 1997).

Attachment theory suggested that an individual's disposition to be kind and caring may begin in childhood, as a result of the responsiveness and affection shown by the parents. A secure attachment style involves a positive attitude about oneself and other people, and is characterized by happiness, trust, and comfort with closeness. Rand Conger and his associates (2000) reported that when individuals had nurturing and involved parents in the seventh grade, they turned out to be warm, supportive, and low in hostility when they were in romantic relationships in their twenties.

Individuals with a preoccupied attachment style have positive attitude about others, but low self-esteem and anxious attitudes about themselves. They tend to experience emotional extremes in their relationships, to crave closeness but have a fear of rejection. Individuals with such low self-esteem may underestimate their partner's attraction, and eventually may cause the rejection that they fear. Individuals with a dismissive attachment style have high self-esteem, but are negative toward other people, whereas those with a fearful attachment style are both anxious about themselves and avoidant toward others. Bruce Ellis and associates (1996) reported that people who grow up in a stressful environment, and develop a dismissive or fearful attachment style, may initiate sexual activity at an earlier age. Such individuals may seek short-term relationships due to their fear of intimacy, according to Pilkington and Richardson, and may emphasize physical attractiveness and wealth when choosing such a short-term partner (Kenrick et al. 1990).

People generally are attracted to potential partners with secure attachment styles, who make them feel loved and cared for, despite the fact that the other person is dissimilar to their own attachment style (Chappell and Davis 1998). Individuals who are themselves insecure, however, may inaccurately see insecure people as being secure. In addition, such variables as familiarity, physical attraction, or similarity in attitudes also may cause individuals to become attracted to insecure partners.

When the object of evaluation is a stranger, a low rating of interpersonal attraction usually means neutrality or indifference. But when the target is a close associate, low levels of attraction usually mean hatred or disgust. It is unclear whether changes in the positive qualities of another person, such as decreases in their supportiveness, generosity, or beauty, cause a substantial change in attraction, or whether increases in negative behavior, such as criticism, unfairness, or withdrawal, are primarily responsible for disaffection (Huston et al. 2001). It is likely, however, that attraction is a function of the perceiver's motivation that is most acute at the time of evaluation of the other person. If the perceiver is feeling a need for respect, and the other person is derogatory, then attraction is likely to be low. But if the two break up, and the perceiver is feeling lonely, then the perceiver may become attracted again to the former partner, as a familiar conversationalist. If the two get back together, however, then loneliness will recede as a motive, and other needs will return to influence attraction or repulsion. Thus, interpersonal attraction, from the beginning to the end of a relationship, may be influenced by characteristics of the target person being evaluated as attractive; by the perceiver's needs, feelings and traits; and by the situation in which the perceiver is exposed to the target.

See also:Attachment: Couple Relationships; Communication: Couple Relationships; Dating; Friendship; Mate Selection; Relationship Initiation; Relationship Maintenance; Self-Esteem; Sexual Communication: Couple Relationships; Sexuality


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michael r. cunningham

lara k. ault

anita p. barbee


views updated May 18 2018

at·trac·tion / əˈtrakshən/ • n. the action or power of evoking interest, pleasure, or liking for someone or something: she has romantic ideas about sexual attraction. ∎  a quality or feature of something or someone that evokes interest, liking, or desire: the main attraction of Peking duck is the crackling texture of its skin. ∎  a thing or place that draws visitors by providing something of interest or pleasure: the church is the town's main tourist attraction. ∎  Physics a force under the influence of which objects tend to move toward each other: gravitational attraction. ∎  Gram. the influence exerted by one word on another that causes it to change to an incorrect form, e.g., the wages of sin is (for are) death.