Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Relationships are central to human social existence. Personal accounts by people who have been forced to endure long periods of isolation serve as reminders of people’s dependence on others, and research suggests that close relationships are the most vital ingredient in a happy and meaningful life. In short, questions dealing with attraction are among the most fundamental in social psychology.
The major theories addressing interpersonal attraction have a common theme: reinforcement. The principle of reinforcement is one of the most basic notions in all of psychology. Put simply, it states that behaviors that are followed by desirable consequences (often these take the form of rewards) tend to be repeated. Applied to interpersonal relations, this principle suggests that when one person finds something rewarding in an interaction with another person (or if that person anticipates some reward in a relationship that has not yet been established), then the person should desire further interaction with that other individual. In behavioral terms, this is what is meant by the term “interpersonal attraction,” which emerges in everyday language in such terms as “liking” or, in the case of deep romantic involvement, “loving.” Appropriately, these theories, based on the notion that individuals are drawn to relationships that are rewarding and avoid those that are not, are known as reinforcement or reward models of...
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Factors of Attraction (Psychology and Mental Health)
The first determinant of attraction, reciprocity, is probably fairly obvious, since it most directly reflects the reinforcement process; nevertheless, it is a powerful force: People tend to like others who like them back. There are few things more rewarding than genuine affection, support, concern, and other indicators that one is liked by another person.
The second principle, proximity, suggests that simple physical closeness tends to promote attraction. Research has confirmed what many people probably already know: People are most likely to become friends (or romantic partners) with others with whom they have worked, grown up, or gone to school. Other studies have shown that people living in dormitories or apartments tend to become friends with the neighbors who live closest to them. Simply being around people gives an individual a chance to interact with them, which in turn provides the opportunity to learn who is capable of providing the rewards sought in a relationship.
It seems, however, that there is yet another force at work, a very basic psychological process known as the mere exposure phenomenon. Research has demonstrated consistently that repeated exposure to something new tends to increase one’s liking for it, and examples of the process are quite common in everyday life. It is not uncommon, for example, for a person to buy a new compact disc by a favorite musical artist without actually having...
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Beauty and Romance (Psychology and Mental Health)
Generally speaking, the same factors that promote the development of friendships also foster romantic attraction. The third principle of attraction, physical attractiveness, is somewhat of an exception, however, since it is more powerful in the romantic context.
In a classic study published by Elaine Walster and her associates in 1966, University of Minnesota first-year men and women were randomly paired for dates to a dance. Prior to the date, these students had provided considerable information about themselves, some of it through personality tests. During the evening, each person individually completed a questionnaire that focused primarily on how much the person liked his or her date, and the participants were contacted for follow-up six months later. Despite the opportunity to discover complex facts about attraction, such as what kinds of personality traits link up within a couple to promote it, the only important factor in this study was physical appearance. For both sexes, the better-looking the partner, the more the person liked his or her date, the stronger was the desire to date the person again, and the more likely the individual was to do so during the next six months.
The potent effect of physical attractiveness in this study sparked much interest in this variable on the part of researchers over the next decade or so. The earliest studies determined rather quickly that both men and women, given the...
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Evolutionary Theories of Attraction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Evolutionary psychologists have provided an important new way to look at why individuals are attracted to others. Borrowing from the basic theorizing of the English biologist Charles Darwin, psychologists are paying increasing attention to the information provided by both physical and social features of living creatures. Everyone is influenced by what people look like, in that they form impressions of others before they even hear them speak. People often use the appearance and behavior of others to make a variety of judgments about them; these judgments are made quickly and unconsciously, and are fairly resistant to change. What sort of impressions are formed? What aspects of a person are focused on? Evolutionary psychology has some answers to these questions.
Specifically, evolutionary psychologists suggest that the attractiveness of a person’s body serves as a valuable and subtle indicator of social behavior, social relationship potential, fitness, quality, reproductive value, and health. Evolutionary psychologists place heavy emphasis on clearly observable features of human bodies and do not focus as much on internal, unobservable aspects of personality, such as kindness or trustworthiness. There is a growing body of research that supports these ideas. For example, significant relationships were found between attractiveness and measures of mental health, social anxiety, and popularity, so the idea...
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Female Shapeliness (Psychology and Mental Health)
Another example of a body characteristic that is tied to attractiveness from an evolutionary perspective is women’s waist-to-hip ratio. Around the world, men prefer women with lower waist-to-hip ratios (between 0.7 and 0.8). Evolutionary psychology research emphasizes the importance of waist-to-hip ratios as a major force in social perception and attraction because shape is a visible sign of the location of fat stores. This consequently signals reproductive potential and health. Low waist-to-hip ratios do indeed directly map onto higher fertility, lower stress levels, and resistance to major diseases. For example, women with waist-to-hip ratios of 0.8 are almost 10 percent more likely to get pregnant than women with waist-to-hip ratios around 0.9.
Although not as much research has focused on the female breast as a signaler of reproductive fitness, a variety of studies suggest that it is also an important factor, although the evidence is mixed. Some studies support the commonly held stereotype that men prefer larger breasts, although others seem to show no such preference. In contrast, some studies have showed that small and medium breasts are preferred to larger breasts, but much of this work focused either on the bust or on waist-to-hip ratios, not both together. The appeal of breast size should depend on overall body fat, waist, and hips, and both physical features should interact to influence ratings of...
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Historical Development (Psychology and Mental Health)
Although it would seem to be of obvious importance, physical appearance as a determinant of romantic attraction was simply neglected by researchers until the mid-1960’s. Perhaps they mistakenly assumed the widespread existence of an old ideal that one should judge someone on the basis of the person’s intrinsic worth, not on the basis of a superficial characteristic. Nevertheless, when the Minnesota study discussed earlier produced a physical attractiveness effect so strong as to eliminate or at least obscure any other factors related to attraction in the context of dating, social psychologists took notice. In any science, surprising or otherwise remarkable findings usually tend to stimulate additional research, and such a pattern definitely describes the course of events in this area of inquiry.
By around 1980, social psychology had achieved a rather solid understanding of the determinants of attraction to strangers, and the field began turning more of its attention to the nature of continuing relationships. Social psychologist Zick Rubin had first proposed a theory of love in 1970, and research on that topic flourished in the 1980’s as investigators examined such topics as the components of love, different types of love, the nature of love in different kinds of relationships, and the characteristics of interaction in successful long-term relationships. Still other lines of research explored how people end...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Berscheid, Ellen. “Physical Attractiveness.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, edited by Leonard Berkowitz. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1988. A very thorough review of the research examining the role of physical attractiveness in interpersonal attraction. Includes interesting discussions of how people judge attractiveness and how attractiveness affects the individual.
Berscheid, Ellen, and Harry T. Reis. “Attraction and Close Relationships.” In The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2, edited by Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998. An in-depth review of contemporary theories of attraction and a good summary of research findings.
Berscheid, Ellen, and Elaine Hatfield Walster. Interpersonal Attraction. 2d ed. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1983. Presents a solid overview of the psychology of attraction. Directed toward the reader with no background in social psychology, the book is quite readable; nevertheless, it is highly regarded and frequently cited within the field. Clever illustrations feature many cartoons.
Buss, David M. Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. 3d ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2008. A very readable book about the ways in which evolutionary science can help the study of social behavior. Good sections on mating strategies and the factors...
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