Attractiveness might be more about the environment, than about you

by Dorian Minors

August 23, 2018

Analects  |  Newsletter


There are a number of things that occur naturally in our environment that can alter the attraction we feel for people. These things might seem small, but they have an outsize influence on our preferences for people.

filed under:

Article Status: Complete (for now).

There are a number of things that occur naturally in our environment that can alter the attraction we feel for people. These things might seem small, but they have an outsize influence on our preferences for people.

1. Familiarity or ‘mere exposure’

The more we see something, the more we like it.

The first, most basic is known as the ‘mere exposure effect’ by social psychologist Robert Zajonc. Basically, the more we see people, the more we like them. This is sometimes considered the very basic principle of attraction. To illustrate, take this study, in which researchers got four confederates (people in on the experiment) and enrolled them in a University class. Each one attended a different number of classes. One went to none, one went to five lectures, one to ten and the last confederate went to fifteen classes. None however, interacted with the class. At the end of the unit, the students in the class were shown slides of the confederates and were asked to rate their attractiveness. The more often the confederates attended class, the more attractive they were perceived by the students.

But Why?

A number of explanations are put forward for this mere exposure effect. The first is the most straightforward. Basically, the familiar is safe and so we are attracted to it. If you’re seeing something regularly and it hasn’t hurt you yet, the probability is low that it will continue.

Other explanations are more complex, but make a lot of sense

  • One explanation suggests that familiarity points out our common attributes to one another. We catch the same bus; we also wear suits to work every day; you have the same purse as me; and so on. Because we know we have things in common, we’re also likely to assume we have other things in common. We’ll talk more about this shortly. Identifying commonalities like these is, in fact, a crucial part of relationship development.
  • Another suggests that we are more likely to be warm and friendly to people we think we’ll have to see again.
  • A third is the idea that we know we don’t have to work as hard to get to know someone we see often. This may motivate us to interact.

All of these explanations make much less sense when you look at some of Zajonc’s original work on the subject. Zajonc had participants view a screen in which odd geometric shapes flashed into view for around one millisecond. This is thought to be under the threshold of conscious perception: too fast to process. The mere exposure of a weird shape for 1 millisecond made participants prefer them to other weird shapes they hadn’t seen at all before. Subliminal perception is something that affects us in strange and unpredictable ways, but this mere exposure effect appears to be active even here–in the earliest stages of visual processing.

Perhaps it’s best then not to read too much into this, and simply realise that mere exposure, or familiarity to a thing has some kind of extraordinarily powerful influence on our preferences.

2. Proximity (or propinquity)

Psychologists have long noticed that the closer we are to people, the more likely we are to be attracted to them. But some psychologists aren’t talking about intimacy, but rather about geographical distance.

A psychologist named James Bossard looked at around 5000 marriage licences to see what they had in common. He found that about one in ten of these couples had lived in the same building and a third lived within five blocks of each other before they got married.

That study was done in the 1930s and the finding has been replicated over and over again. Simply being nearby someone hugely improves your chances of being married to them?

But why?

A correlation doesn’t always mean causation, of course. That is, just because two things happen together a lot, don’t mean they make each other happen. At the turn of the century, nearly seventy years after Bossard’s paper, the daughter, Isabel, of the famous Myers-Briggs duo found that the critical factor at play was what she called ‘functional distance’. Basically, if the distance between two people is configured in a way that facilitates social interactions, it will powerfully predict increases in attractiveness. This implies that it facilitates our other environmental factors listed here, like familiarity and similarity.

3. Similarity (or the ‘matching hypothesis’)

Conventional wisdom often cuts two ways. Here it’s no different. We are told that ‘birds of a feather flock together’, but also that ‘opposites attract’. Conventional wisdom is also not always well-informed. Here, similarly, no different. It’s been consistently shown that the former is the winner. Ever since the 60’s, there has been a great deal of focus on perceived ‘similarity’ and its effect on relationships. Theodore Newcomb was the first to point out that we like people who agree with us, who admire us, and who are associated with the kind of rewards that we like.

Similarity is often reduced to quite superficial things. For example, even similar bone structure has been proposed as an influential factor in attraction. But it’s not always simple. Sociologist Erving Goffman expanded on this, proposing the ‘matching hypothesis’. In essence, he suggests that the closer our social attributes are to a person, the more we are attracted to them. When we are matched in terms of appearance, social status, ethnicity, and so on, we are more attracted, and the more points at which we match, the more attracted we tend to be. Goffman suggests that there is an element of justice to the similarity principle: people deserve no better than they themselves. It may be the drive behind the disdainful connotations surrounding the social phenomenon ‘punching above their weight’.

On that note, however, it’s important to realise that we are attracted to people not for their true similarity but for their perceived similarity. Their similarity to our ‘idealised’ self. This can sometimes explain why objectively attractive people seem very into their less attractive partners. Here, perhaps, a low self-esteem has led to a less attractive ‘ideal’ self orsomething else has created a skewed perceived similarity. That said, it’s also very possible that the ‘less attractive’ person simply has more in common with the ‘more attractive’ person than you realise, or can make it seem that way.

4. Complementarity

The complementarity hypothesis refers to the idea that the more two people complement each other, the more attractive they will find each other. In some ways, complementarity can be viewed a sort of extension of similarity into more abstract things, like similar (or complementary) life goals.

However, complementarity is not always equivalent to similarity. Consider again the idea of complementary life goals. Life goals may be similar and complementary, for example the desire to have children. Yet they may also be dissimilar and complementary. Consider, for example, where one person wishes to make a career as a carer of the children and the other wishes to make a career in something a more financially oriented.

Another example is when we view relational needs, like belonging, affection, and control. We all require some level of these attributes in our relationships, and having a partner with similar levels of affection seems quite important. But when one partner has a higher need for control and another places less weight on that aspect, this complementarity is also quite adaptive.

So, perhaps the conventional wisdom isn’t quite so off, just reductionistic: where similarity explains why ‘birds of a feather flock together’, complementarity may explain why ‘opposites attract’ Yet, while the two concepts go hand-in-hand, similarity tends to be the factor that’s most influential in initial attraction. Complementarity, rather, seems to grow in importance as a relationships continues. Research has found that complementarity is correlated with greater interpersonal closeness and higher levels of relational closeness.

So birds of a feather might flock together, and opposites might attract, but the real key to killer relationships is flexibility. Depeche Mode were onto something.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

Join over 2000 of us. Get the newsletter.