Usually, when we think of attraction, we just think of it as what turns us on. This isn't quite right. Attraction spans so much more than mere arousal. That said, though a broad concept, attraction is actually quite simple at its core. Attraction is simply what draws people together or pushes them apart. It's the glue that binds us to our friends, our family, our partners and our workmates. Attraction is what makes people want to get to know us, and to stay.
Science spends a lot of time defining terms. In psychology, attraction has a beautiful definition:
'you're attractive' means 'you're doing something positive for me, so I feel positively about you'.
That's it. That's what attraction comes down to. And this idea can be broken down into four simple categories; the four ways people will feel positively for other people:
Physical attraction is literally our physical impression of a person. Literally our most superficial characteristics. The sparkle of our eyes, the set of our mouth, the lustre of our hair, the faint outline of muscles under downy skin. But within this category comes things that aren't necessarily aesthetic in nature. For example the resonance of our voice or the body language we invoke and even the scent that trails us. When people talk about attraction (or 'hotness' etc) people are often referring to this. It is often thought of as a romantic thing, but we also want our leaders to be strong in this quality: we want them to have presence. So physical attractiveness is also comprised of things like how well one dresses; how neat and tidy one looks; and the way one uses their body to communicate confidence, fun and power to us.
Sexual attraction is usually conceptualised as an extension of physical attractiveness, but that's not entirely true. It's definitely a physical reaction, but it's hardly limited to physical characteristics. It refers to those things that turn us on physically and mentally. Evolutionary theories give us some insight into this. We can find anything sexually exciting that has some bearing on our reproductive capacity---how good we'd be at doing children. So physical signs of health. But also aspects of our social skills and desire to be intimate as well as external factors like our ability to accumulate resources---our job and social status for example.
Social attraction relates to how comfortable people make you feel around them. How easily can you talk to this person? Are they funny or interesting? Do they keep us engaged in the conversation? Do they make us feel safe? We could call this something like 'likability'. Certainly researchers do. Social attraction is crucial to community formation and coming together as individuals, and is a sensible addition to our attraction arsenal.
The oft forgotten Task Attraction
'Task' or 'competence' attractiveness relates to our perceptions of how good people are at things. A term which refers quite simply to our appreciation of someone's savoir vivre, their skill at life. This kind of attraction can be as simple as someone who's really good at one particular thing. The quiet colleague who you always go to for help with the profit and loss statement. The boring classmate who writes most of the report for your group assignments. In fact, some relationships are entirely based on task attraction, like that between yourself and the mechanic you prefer. But it can also be more complex. We can be attracted to some people by virtue of their success in a larger domain, for example an artist or a musician. Celebrities are a little like this---their success and skill is enticing. But this example also shows how such things are inter-related. A celebrity's skill holds our attention, but so does their ability to hold onto resources, so too their beauty, and so too the vivid pictures we can paint (true or not) of their social character.
Task attractiveness is not often explored with depth in academia and is rarely discussed in the various blundering pop-psychology blogs, books and seminars out there. Why? Well, it's not very sexy. Indeed, research suggests that when compared with the other kinds of attractiveness (most especially 'likability', or social attraction) it holds little sway over how we respond to people. But by discounting task attraction because of it's tenuous influence in comparison to other kinds, we discount its rather startling effect when examined alone. It's powerful:
- Being perceived as more competent in something, like communication for example, increases both your social and physical attractiveness, as well as making people think you're more attractive to work with.
- Even children will rate someone significantly more attractive (interpersonally, not physically) if they are a high-performer (as opposed to a low-performer).
- When competence and task attractiveness are considered as two separate things (competence being one's general skill in a domain, task referring to a specific performance on a task), they can influence each other too. Being more competent appears to generally make people think you're better at specific tasks. Being better at a specific task seems to make people assume you're more competent generally.
So what is attractiveness? It's simply that which makes us feel positively about others. Both more straightforward and complex than we ordinarily imagine. It's important not to forget that, both in our interactions with others and when we look inwardly, and evaluate ourselves.
Butterflies can't see their wings
They can't see how beautiful they really are
But everyone else can
People are like that too.