The attraction equation: The science behind human relationships

Law of attraction: The science behind human relationships

The attraction between two people might seem like an intangible, indefinable thing but that hasn’t stopped an exhaustive search to discover the basis of human attraction. Here we take a look at the components of that complex attraction equation.

Of all the mysteries science has attempted to unravel, among the most complex is what makes one person attractive to another. There are layers of evolutionary and environmental factors that influence what draws you to another person, so let’s dive in and start peeling back those layers, as we uncover the elements that add up to attraction.

Beauty in the eye

If you are into photography, graphic design or filmmaking you will certainly have heard of the “rule of thirds” and probably also of the “golden ratio”. Whether the golden ratio being present is what makes a face attractive is open to interpretation because it all depends on where you start your measuring, but what has been found is that there are definite facial ratios that we do find appealing.

… what we regard as attractive in a face relates to the distance between eyes and mouth.

For instance, what we regard as attractive in a face relates to the distance between eyes and mouth. Female Caucasian faces for example are judged as being beautiful when the vertical distance between the eyes and mouth is approximately 36 per cent of the face’s total length and the horizontal distance between the eyes is around 46 per cent of the face’s width. The interesting thing about these proportions is that they are also the average face proportions of the human face.

In addition to these proportions, faces judged to be attractive, regardless of culture, are highly symmetrical. This symmetry is thought to reflect favourable exposure to hormonal levels and a comfortable environment while in the womb. Similarly, an average face in terms of proportions also indicates “normal” circumstances while growing.

What you see as attractive in a face, then, are really signs of health in a person who would make a good genetic mate. You can’t change your facial dimensions, unless you want to risk the “surprised platypus” look that results from Botox, collagen injections and plastic surgery. You can, however, be you female or male, change your hair, and we know that hair has a major impact on attraction.

Hair triggers

Based on the scientific literature for instance, men rate women with long hair as more attractive regardless of their facial attractiveness. As we saw with facial dimensions, hair appeal is all about messaging, and men make assumptions about a woman’s nature based on hair length. Men associate long hair with women who are determined, intelligent, independent and healthy. Short hair is associated with being honest, caring, emotional and feminine. Remember, this is not some sort of follicular zodiac, it is not saying how you are if you have long or short hair, it’s what the research shows about how women are perceived by men at an unconscious level, and perception is the basis of attraction.

Generally, straight hair in a woman is perceived as more youthful, healthy and attractive than wavy hair. Interestingly, too, despite reports that blondes have more fun which does result in them being over-represented in media, darker shades such as medium copper or brown are regarded as the most attractive.

Beardy beauty

You can wear your hair however you like whatever your sex, but only men can play around with facial hair. Researchers from the University of Queensland have studied how differing stages of facial hair growth (clean-shaven, light stubble (5 days of growth), heavy stubble (10 days of growth), and a full beard (at least four weeks of untrimmed growth)) might affect male attractiveness. They used photographs of a range of men and sometimes digitally altered the faces to look either more masculine or more feminine. More than 8500 women viewed the pictures and rated how attractive they thought each man was, as well as how appealing they were for a short-term or long-term relationship.

… men with light and heavy stubble were considered the most attractive but were considered by the women as best for short-term relationships …

It emerged that men with light and heavy stubble were considered the most attractive, but were considered by the women as best for short-term relationships, while men with beards were thought to be best for long-term relationships. The results also showed that full beards and heavy stubble did the most to reduce the effects of small changes in face shape. The thought is that beards and stubble can hide or disguise overly masculine or feminine face shapes. This may be why bearded men are favoured for long-term relationships, as other studies show that overly masculine men are subconsciously regarded as being less caring and considerate and therefore less appealing as a long-term partner.

Up to this point we’ve been considering what is appealing to the eye but, of course, it’s not just what you see that attracts you to someone.

Sounding beautiful

People have unique voices, but there are certain qualities in a voice that we all react to positively, even without realising it. Research has been done altering voices to specific frequencies, qualities and “formant” spacing (the gaps between emphasised sounds in speech). A formant is a part of speech that carries a lot of energy caused by resonances in the vocal cords.

Men, it turns out, are attracted to female voices that are high-pitched, breathy and with big gaps between formants. This kind of speech pattern indicates small body size. By contrast women prefer low pitch and smaller gaps between formants, indicating larger body size. Women also prefer breathy voices as breathiness softens the potential aggressiveness that can go with large body size.

This fits with studies on animals and birds showing that creatures can perceive from frequency, pitch and formant spacing the size of the animal making the call.

You can still throw in all of the witty erudition you like, but if you really want to be alluring then be a bit breathy about it and lengthen your formant spacing right (for an example check out some old footage of Marilyn Monroe and you won’t go far wrong).

The smell of attraction

In an age of smartphones, social media and streamed entertainment we tend to idealise the simple life of our ancestors. What we forget though is although life in earlier times may have been simpler it was also nasty, brutish and short. On top of that, our predecessors, whether from hunter-gather, Roman or Tudor times, were a bit whiffy. Our ancestors would, to our modern sensibilities, have been significantly on the nose. In contemporary times of course we clean and preen to a magnificent degree, and at least part of that preening, the use of deodorants, has a significant effect on how attractive we are to others.

Research published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour found that men rated all women who wore deodorant as more feminine and attractive than those who wore no deodorant. For women however, the result of men wearing deodorant was more nuanced. Men who scored low on facial masculinity were rated as more masculine when they wore deodorant. However, men who scored high on facial masculinity showed no increase in masculinity ratings after application of deodorant. The reasons for this is that high levels of masculinity are not particularly appealing as they are often associated with aggression and hostility. Deodorant, or cologne, can soften a man who otherwise appears very masculine, making him more appealing.

Non-physical qualities like being cooperative, dependable, brave, caring, hard-working and intelligent are just as important as having a symmetrical face and smooth skin.

The scientific literature is also full of studies indicating that men respond to pheromones emitted by women and find any woman more attractive when she is ovulating. Men asked to smell the T-shirts of women worn throughout the menstrual cycle will consistently rate the shirts worn when the woman is ovulating as smelling the nicest. Whether you are aware of it or not, your nose is no outsider when it comes to what you find attractive.

An attractive setting

We have talked in general terms so far, about the evolutionary forces operating at unconscious level that drive attraction. But you are more than your genetic heritage. A host of cultural and environmental factors add notes to the tune laid down by your DNA to arrive at the symphony (occasionally a little discordant) that is you. As an example, the importance of physical appearance to you in being attracted to someone is influenced by where you live. Research published in the journal Personal Relationships has revealed that physical appearance matters more in more socially mobile urban areas where individuals have a high degree of social choice. In rural areas relationships are less about choice and more about living in community.

The context in which you meet people also has a big influence on how you will feel about them and what you will base those feelings on. A study from the journal Psychological Science analysed data from 84 speed dating events. At bigger events women and men decided based on quickly identifiable attributes like height and weight. At smaller events people made decisions based on qualities that take longer to identify like education and type of job. In essence that means that what is attractive to you varies depending on the setting in which you meet someone, because the setting itself determines what qualities you get to evaluate. Based on that, we can say that maybe a nightclub isn’t the best place to find a life partner. What it also reveals, though, is that much more than sensory cues as to a person’s fitness to mate determines whether you find them attractive, and that is particularly true the longer that you know them.

This was illustrated clearly in a paper published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour. Many studies in the field of human attraction are based on people being shown photos and asked to evaluate the images for attractiveness. In this study, however, students on a summer archaeological excavation course were asked (privately) to evaluate the attractiveness of the other students on the course. After six weeks the students were asked to rate their classmates again. After spending that 42-day period together working on the dig, the students’ perceptions of the physical attractiveness of others changed significantly. The students didn’t change in appearance over the six weeks, but the perception of their physical attractiveness changed based on their personal qualities that emerged through interactions during the course.

This is reassuring. It means humans aren’t just driven by primal physical imperatives when we are attracted to someone. Non-physical qualities like being cooperative, dependable, brave, caring, hard-working and intelligent are just as important as having a symmetrical face and smooth skin. Just how important each of these things is to you depends on the cultural and physical environment in which you live.

You know what you like … right?

No one likes being told that who they are attracted to is out of their control. You like to think that you are captain of your ship, mistress/master of your soul. Surely who you are attracted to is determined by you, isn’t it? Perhaps not, if we take note of a study released in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in July 2020.

This particular piece of research was divided into two parts. In the first part participants nominated their top three ideals in a romantic partner. As an example, Alice (name randomly chosen) may have said she is attracted to people who are funny, attractive and open. Alice was then asked to rate her desire for people that she knew personally including romantic partners, friends and blind dates. The results of this first experiment showed that Alice would be more attracted to people who had the qualities that she said she liked. So far, so good, everything looking nicely self-determinist. The second part of the study, however, tells a different story.

For the next portion of the study, participants were asked to consider the degree to which those same personal acquaintances possessed personal qualities preferred by another random person in the study. For example, Alice may have been told that Cassandra likes people who are down-to-earth, intelligent and thoughtful. Alice was then asked to consider how much those people she had previously rated had those qualities that Cassandra liked. Alice was then asked to again rate the same people as to how attractive they were. This time Alice experienced greater attraction to the people who had the qualities that Cassandra thought were more important.

The researchers who performed the experiment concluded that people just want positive qualities in someone, and that none of us really have any special insight as to what we find attractive in a partner. You could view this as a depressing indictment of lack of personal control and insight, or you could see it as a blessing to be liberated from the limitations of your own perceptions. How you take it is up to you.

Ultimately, any given instance of attraction is an interplay of personal psychology, the circumstances of your meeting and evolutionary drives. That’s why we don’t all just fall for the same few individuals and why being attracted to someone is not a rational thing. In the end, that’s what produces the marvellous diversity that is the human experience, and it is just as it should be.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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