Interpersonal Attraction

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Everyone meets many people. With some, there is a natural fit; with other, there isn't. Liking a person is quite different from liking chocolate or liking to ski. Liking someone implies feelings of warmth, intimacy, and consideration and a desire to spend time together. Interpersonal attraction plays a large part in the formation of all relationships except those into which a person is born, that is, all nonascriptive relationships. Everyone uses tactics that are expected to recruit potential partners; the specific tactics used in presenting oneself, as well as the characteristics an individual looks for in others, will vary depending on whether what is sought is friendship or love or a good working partner (McCall 1974). In earlier studies, questions of affiliation were confused with questions of attraction.You may be attracted to many people, but only those who are available in terms of physical proximity and who are defined as appropriate by social norms will actually become interaction partners (Berscheid and Reis 1998, p.204).

Even though liking someone is based on many factors that can't always be defined, a person does know, upon meeting someone, whether he or she is in fact liked. This perceived liking in turn draws us toward the other (Sprecher and Hatfield 1992).

Men and women operate differently in the area of choosing people as being attractive. For example, men are more inclined to reject a person who disagrees with them than are women and more likely to choose the same type of person as a friend and as a marriage partner (Lindzay and Aronson 1969).

First impressions don't necessarily last. Nisbett, reanalyzing Newcomb's data in 1989, found that people's liking of other people after sixteen weeks' acquaintance was not predicted very well by their initial liking of these others after one week's acquaintance (Nisbett and Smith 1989,p.72)


Homans, working from the perspective of exchange theory, states that people consider the rewards versus the costs of any potential relationship (Lindzay and Aronson 1969) and are attracted to those people who provide the most reward at the least cost. From this perspective, the ideal relationship is one in which both participants have equal costs and rewards, so that neither feels cheated or exploited. Newcomb asserts that frequency of interaction is an important determinant of attraction, a view known as the propinquity perspective. The basic assumption is that the more frequently one interacts with others, the more attractive they become. It is expected that frequency of interaction will lead to increasing similarity of beliefs and values and that this assumed similarity will in turn lead to increased attraction. This perspective ignores the possibility that getting to know a person better may actually reveal many differences (Lindzay and Aronson 1969). Despite the idea's appeal to common sense, there is little evidence of increasing reciprocity of interpersonal attraction over time (Kenny and LaVoie 1982).

People do prefer those who are similar in background, interests, and values. They want to talk about things that interest them and do things familiar to them. A person who can provide social support by having similar beliefs and values is a likely potential friend. Despite the folk wisdom that opposites attract, similarity is more powerful than complementarity. The exceptions are those with strong needs on either end of the dominance–submission continuum or the nurturance–succorance continuum (Argyle 1969, p. 213); when strong needs exist in these areas, complementarity is more powerful.


Though different factors come into play when one is evaluating someone as a potential friend or a potential work partner or a potential romantic partner, there seem to be inferred qualities that make a stranger appear to be likable or not likable. One study found that when videotapes of women were shown to males and females to judge, those most often chosen were apt to be described as sociable, cheerful, and positive emotionally; the underchosen were more apt to be described as negative and moody (Hewitt and Goldman 1982).

In a culture, like the United States, that values openness, psychological awareness, and emotional vulnerability, self-disclosure increases likability. Those who disclose little are less apt to be found attractive by others (Montgomery 1986).

Revealing yourself to another person is a sign that you like and trust them. It also signals that you trust them to respond appropriately. There seem to be three specific links between self-disclosure and attraction and likeability: (1) the more you disclose about yourself, the more you are liked; (2) people disclose more to those they initially like; and (3) the very act of disclosing makes you like the person to whom you disclosed (Collins and Miller 1994). A modern form of self-presentation that tells quite a bit about what people think makes them appear attractive is the personal ad. No longer are these dismissed as being for the desperate; rather, they are seen as just another way to introduce oneself. A study of the responses to different sets of physical characteristics referred to in ads showed that tall men and thin women received the greatest number of responses (Lynn and Shurgot 1984). In these ads it can also be seen that people present themselves as happy, able, capable, and very successful. It is interesting to note that the richer a man claims to be, the younger, taller, and prettier a woman he wants. The younger and prettier a woman presents herself as being, the more successful a man she wishes to meet.


First meetings proceed cautiously. In every cultural group there are conventions about how long the preliminaries must last. These conventions vary depending upon the age and gender of the participants, as well as where the meeting takes place. The goals of the encounter determine the interpersonal attraction tactics used. For example, when characteristics of potential dating partners were varied along two dimensions, physical attractiveness and personality desirability, undergraduate males chose physical attractiveness as the deciding variable (Glick 1985). Therefore, a female hoping for a date would find that increasing physical attractiveness would be more effective than showing what a nice personality she had. Not all inititial encounters develop into relationships. In general, whether the individual develops an expectation that future encounters will be rewarding is critical to the continuation of relationship. Several studies have shown that perceiving the relationship as being better than others' relationships facilitates commitment to and satisfaction with the relationship (Rusbult et al. 1996).

Relationship satisfaction also positively correlates with evaluating your partner more positively than he or she evaluates self. Such evaluations are also positively related to more effectively resolving any conflicts that occur and thus to continuation of the relationship (Murray and Holmes 1996).

The goals of the encounter determine the interpersonal attraction tactics used. For example, when characteristics of potential dating partners were varied along two dimensions, physical attractiveness and personality desirability, undergraduate males chose physical attractiveness as the deciding variable (Glick 1985). Therefore, a female hoping for a date would find that increasing physical attractiveness would be more effective than showing what a nice personality she had.


Competition has an interesting relationship with interpersonal attraction. Rees found that during intragroup competition, football players reported the most liking and respect for those who played their own position yet outperformed them (Rees and Segal 1984). Riskin also found that males, when given background data indicating both the degree of competitiveness and the degree of work mastery in target males, rated the most competitive as most attractive, as long as they were also seen as having ability. In addition, these competitive males were assumed by the male subjects to be more attractive to women (Riskin and Wilson 1982). Numerous studies have shown that emergent leaders are given high interpersonal-attraction ratings by both sexes.

The workplace provides a setting where qualities of competitiveness, ability, and leadership are displayed. It might be assumed that this leads to the formation of romantic attachments. Though this does in fact occur, the work setting also provides for additional complexity in the handling of personal attraction. Attraction and intimacy must be seen in the context of outsiders' view of the relationship. Attempts must be made to balance the demands of the job and those of the relationship. Role relationships within the workplace are expected to contain a degree of distance that is at odds with the demands of "getting closer." Despite these problems, people do get romantically involved with co-workers. One study of 295 adults (average age: thirty-two) revealed that 84 had been involved in a romantic relationship with someone at work and 123 had been aware of a romance in their workplace. Such relationships are more likely to occur in less formal organizations, especially those that are very small or very large. The person most likely to enter into such a relationship is a female who is young, new, and of low rank (Dillard and Witteman 1985, p. 113).


Being perceived as friendly, pleasant, polite, and easy to talk to increases a person's ability to attract potential friends. If in addition similar values, interests, and backgrounds are present, the likelihood of friendship is even greater (Johnson 1989). In ongoing relationships, friendship has nothing to do with the participants' rating of each other's physical appearance. Nevertheless, at the initial meeting stage a person judged as being too physically attractive will be avoided. In one study, sixty undergraduate males were shown a male target population (previously rated from 1 to 5 by a male and female sample) and were asked who among this group they would like to meet. The most attractive were chosen less frequently; they were judged to be more egocentric and less kind. It was the moderately attractive who were seen as being the type of person most of the subjects would like to meet. Explaining these findings in terms of exchange theory, one would say that most people rate themselves as bringing moderate attractiveness to a relationship and feel that extreme attractiveness throws off the equality (Gailucci 1984).

Though it is often assumed that young people do not see older people as potential friends, a review of forty research reports reveals that perceived agreement in attitudes tends to neutralize young adults' general perception of older adults as unattractive. Elders may perceive young people as attractive or unattractive, but they still prefer to associate with individuals who are middle-aged or older (Webb et al. 1989).


While males and females alike differ in their ability to distinguish between friendly and sexually interested behavior, males are more likely to see sexual intent where females see only friendly behavior. When shown videotapes of five couples, each showing a male and a female behaving in either a friendly or a sexually interested way, males consistently saw more sexual intent (Shotland and Craig 1988).

Men and women also differ as to the relative importance of physical features and personal qualities in determining the choice of romantic partners. Even though both sexes rated personal qualities as being more important than physical features, males placed greater emphasis on the physical than did women (Nevid 1984). Despite this, there seems to be a point at which attempting to increase physical appeal by dressing to reveal the body has a negative effect on one's appeal as a marital partner. Hill reports that when male and female models wore very tight clothes that displayed a great deal of skin, they were rated as being very attractive as potential sex partners but their marital potential was lowered. High-status dressing had the opposite effect for both males and females: Ratings of physical, dating, sexual, and marital attractiveness all increased as the status of clothing increased (Hill et al. 1987).

A shared sense of humor is another important component of loving and liking. When a humor test comprising cartoons, comic strips, and jokes was given to thirty college couples, along with a test that measured how much the partners loved and liked each other, a strong correlation between shared humor and a predisposition to marry was found (Murstein and Brust 1985). It can probably be assumed that the shared humor comes before the relationship, as well as serving as a factor that enhances it. How people feel about their romance at any given time tends to cause them to rewrite history. For example: When people involved in romantic relationships were asked, once a year for four years, to describe how the relationship had changed during the past year, it was found that current feelings had more to do with the ratings that actual changes (Berscheid and Reis 1998, p. 211).

(see also: Courtship: Exchange Theory; Love; Mate Selection Theories; Personal Relationships; Social Psychology)


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Ardyth Stimson

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Interpersonal Attraction

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