Romantic attraction is sometimes a mystery—there have been times when I have absolutely no idea what initially drew me to a person, but I was without a doubt drawn. And if I, a mere ordinary human, am confounded by what sparks a physical and romantic attraction, we should definitely go to the scientists and psychologists who are more learned in this field.
So, what actually triggers this all-powerful feeling? In this exploration, we’ll probe the psychological and scientific underpinnings that explain why we’re drawn to certain people—mostly. In some cases, there is no explanation; two people just click.
The Biology of Beauty
Before venturing into the complexity of the psychological and social dynamics at play, let’s discuss the foundation of attraction: the biological causes that frequently generate that initial flicker of interest. What is it about some people that cause us to literally stop in our tracks and do a double-take when we see them?
Research by Rhodes et al. in their 1998 study “Facial Symmetry and the Perception of Beauty” showed that symmetrical faces are more likely to be rated as attractive. This symmetry is often interpreted as an indication of good genetics, making those individuals desirable mates on a basic biological level.
In layman’s terms, hot people are hot, and we like them because of their hotness. That totally tracks!
Pheromones: More Than Just a Scent
According to Wyatt’s 2015 study titled “The Search for Human Pheromones,” the exact role of pheromones in human attraction remains unclear. However, the study indicates that pheromones play a role in the chemical communication between potential mates.
Pheromones play an important role in initiating sexual attraction–when released, they can increase sexual appetite, arousal, and fertility. While the term “scent” is deceptive, since these chemicals have no odor, pheromones are recognized by smell and released through perspiration and saliva.
That sounds confusing, so we’ll try to dumb it down: Pheromones are the natural scents that people give off—while we can’t actually smell the smell, our bodies can. The nose doesn’t know in the case of pheromones!
Beyond the initial biological triggers, psychology plays a big role in attraction. Why do we find certain personalities compelling? What emotional bonds play a part in a romantic relationship’s longevity? Let’s take a guided tour into the mental mechanics of attraction.
Similarity: A Common Ground
Caspi and Herbener’s 1990 research, “Similarity and Attraction: A Longitudinal Study,” found that people are more likely to form lasting bonds with people who share common features.
Things like shared interests, hobbies, and values all play a part in the romance department—it’s more than just looks.
The Halo Effect: More Than Meets the Eye
Nisbett and Wilson’s 1977 study, titled “The Halo Effect: Evidence for Unconscious Alteration of Judgments,” delved into the phenomenon known as the Halo Effect. In the context of attraction, this cognitive bias suggests that we are more prone to see someone as attractive when we feel they have qualities like kindness, intelligence, or success.
Breaking it down: We are drawn to decent, smart, or financially stable (i.e., rich) people.
Emotional Connection: Beyond the Physical
In his book “The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples,” Dr. John Gottman highlights the importance of emotional bonds for sustaining romantic relationships.
How do you know if you have a good emotional attachment? Easily: You have strong bonds in a romantic relationship when both partners experience a strong sense of closeness and connection, are willing to be vulnerable, open, and trustworthy with one another, and know they can count on the other to be attentive and available when needed.
Social and Cultural Influences
Lastly, the society and culture we live in significantly shape who we find attractive—from media influences to historical precedents; how do societal norms and values play a role in who we’re charmed by?
Cunningham et al. ‘s 1995 study, “Cross-cultural differences in physical attractiveness perceptions,” shows that beauty standards can vary significantly across different societies.
In plain English, this means that attraction is subjective; what is attractive to a French person can be wildly diverse than what is attractive to an American. This is physical attraction diversity at work!
The X-Factor: The Inexplicable Element
Finally, an indefinable quality often draws us to someone—a sort of chemistry that doesn’t easily fit into scientific categories. Although hard to quantify, this X-factor plays an undeniable role in the labyrinthine maze of attraction.
This refers to what we talked about in the beginning—I had a boyfriend that I still can’t say why I was into him; I just was. He wasn’t particularly attractive, funny, or charming. To this day, it’s a mystery to me. Or maybe it was his pheromones—we’ll never know!
There are a few other factors that contribute to the many facets of attraction and compatibility–here are more elements that can lead some people to just “click”:
The mere-exposure effect posits that people tend to develop a liking for things merely because they are familiar with them. Being in close physical proximity increases familiarity and, consequently, the likelihood of attraction.
Timing is Everything
Sometimes, people connect because the timing is just right—both might be at a point in their lives where they are open to starting a new relationship, or their life goals might parallel well at a particular moment. Or Mercury could be in retrograde if you are an astrology aficionado!
Humor and Wit
A similar sense of humor is a strong bonding factor—laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemical stuff, which elevates a sense of well-being and happiness. We call this the Pete Davidson rule: funny is hot. If someone can make you laugh, they’re a keeper. The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but for a lot of women, the way to theirs is with laughter.
The way people communicate, both verbally and non-verbally, can really influence attraction. Some people are drawn to those who are expressive, while others may prefer those who are more reserved but wonderful listeners.
Shared Interests and Values
Having shared passions, interests, or core values can make for a more profound and lasting romantic connection. While opposites may attract in some cases, shared viewpoints often create a solid foundation for a long-term relationship.
Being intellectually on the same wavelength can make conversations more engaging and fulfilling, adding to a more profound romantic connection.
Economic and Social Status
Though it might not be a comfortable truth, social and economic status do indeed play a role in attraction for some people. This could be rooted in evolutionary strategies for ensuring a stable environment and future for potential children that could result from the relationship. There is no judgment here; we just state the obvious! And obviously, some people are attracted to wealth and social standing.
Mutual Respect and Admiration
Being attracted to someone involves more than just having the same interests; it includes being treated with love and respect–mutual regard has the potential to generate a beneficial feedback cycle that improves the bond!
Attraction is not black and white or cut and dried; there are lots of gray areas in between when it comes to who we are into and why.
We understand that human interaction is influenced by biological, psychological, and social factors–understanding the scientific aspects behind gives helpful insights into the nature of human interaction.
If you’ve ever wondered why you feel an overpowering and all-consuming attraction to a certain person and you feel like your eyes pop out of your head and do that AWOOOGA thing in cartoons that signifies romantic interest (think Pepé Le Pew of Looney Tunes when he sees Penelope Pussycat, which, in hindsight, was actually super creepy) now you know the answer: it’s not just you, it’s actually an intricate interplay of variables that make you stop and stare.
Or it could be that they are just drop-dead gorgeous and have amazingly scented pheromones.