Psychology Of Interpersonal Attraction Research Paper

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In this research paper we consider the nature and history of the study of interpersonal attraction in social psychology; theoretical perspectives on attraction; predictors of attraction, including perceiver, situational, and dyadic factors, and characteristics of the object of attraction; and future research directions.

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1. What Is Interpersonal Attraction?

Interpersonal attraction is traditionally defined in social psychology as a positive attitude or evaluation regarding a particular person, including the three components conventionally ascribed to attitudes: behavioral (tendency to approach the person), cognitive (positive beliefs about the person), and affective (positive feelings for the person). Another approach treats attraction as the desire to form a friendly or romantic relationship with a particular person. Attraction is often treated as equivalent to liking. Loving, particularly being ‘in love,’ with someone, is sometimes seen as a very strong or special kind of attraction—‘romantic attraction’—including exclusivity and sexual interest. Attraction in the above senses is distinguished from attractiveness—characteristics of people such as good looks or desirable personality that make others be attracted to them.

2. History Of The Study Of Interpersonal Attraction

Social psychologists have focused mainly on friendly and romantic attraction between previously unacquainted peers, with most research being conducted in North America. The first major research programs, conducted in the 1960s, consisted mainly of experiments on the effects of perceived attitude similarity and, to some extent, appearance. Interest in attraction between strangers largely waned by the mid-1970s as researchers became more interested in ongoing relationships. However, a new wave of research, beginning mainly in the mid-1980s, focused on a possible evolutionary basis of mate selection, and on the specific facial and bodily features that are normatively seen as attractive. Among the most recent systematic reviews of the attraction literature are a textbook chapter by Simpson and Harris (1994) and a section of a chapter by Berscheid and Reis (1998) in the most recent Handbook of Social Psychology. Shorter reviews of this literature are included in most social psychology and personal relationship textbooks.

3. Theoretical Perspectives On Attraction

The most influential theory in the early period of studying attraction, put forward by Byrne (1971) in relation to his large and successful research program on perceived similarity effects, is based on classical learning theory approaches: we are attracted to those who provide valuable rewards. Thus Byrne argues that one is attracted to someone perceived to share one’s attitudes because it is rewarding to be agreed with. Other theorists have used reward approaches to explain why people are attracted to those with good looks (e.g., aesthetic values and that we gain status from being seen with them; Hatfield and Sprecher 1986). Recently, Aron and Aron (1997) posited that people are attracted to being in relationships with people who provide, specifically, the reward of ‘self-expansion’—increasing one’s potential efficacy by being able to include in one’s self the others’ desirable resources, perspectives, and identities.

A competing, influential theoretical approach from the early period of studying attraction is based on Gestalt-influenced cognitive models. For example, balance theory, and especially Newcomb’s (1961) AB-X model, posits that people are attracted to similars because people spontaneously organize cognitive elements in a balanced fashion. If person A has a positive relation to attitude object X, and A knows that person B also has a positive relation to X, then A’s cognitive elements will be balanced only if A has a positive relation to B. (Balance theories also predict that A will like B if both A and B have a negative relation to X.) A related model, cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger 1957), predicts that A will come to like B in the above situation in order to reduce or avoid the dissonance (distressing psychological contradiction) if A were not to like B.

Another set of models focus on the role of stereotypes and culture. The idea is that in a particular cultural context certain features (such as good looks and intelligence) are normatively linked—so that when a person has one of these characteristics, they are assumed to have the others—in order that attraction is strongly facilitated (e.g., Dion et al. 1972).

Finally, much recent work employs models from evolutionary psychology (see Buss and Kenrick 1998, for a review). The idea is that modern individuals are likely to be those whose ancestors had psychological tendencies that made them most successful at producing offspring. According to this view, women have evolved to prefer mates who show signs of being able to protect and support the upbringing of the child (e.g., status) while men have evolved to prefer mates who show signs of vitality (e.g., physical beauty), suggesting that they are more likely to bear healthy children.

4. Perceiver Characteristics

Individuals who are extroverted, dispositionally lonely, or who have low self-esteem, a preoccupied attachment style, or high need for affiliation are especially likely to become attracted to other people (see Simpson and Harris 1994). The physically attractive are also more likely to be sociable, date, and engage in sexual relationships earlier (see Berscheid and Reis 1998).

5. Situational Factors

Attraction requires at least some exposure to the object of attraction and attractions usually occur among people who live in the same environment, and thus who also share similar backgrounds and experiences (see Berscheid and Reis 1998). Attractions are also more likely the more interaction one has with the person—indeed familiarity effects show up even comparing exposure times varying only by seconds (Zajonc 1968). Further, attractions are likely to occur among people who are seen as appropriate for the particular kind of relationship, so that attractions are most common among age peers, among people of the same social class, and among people who are approved of by one’s friends (see Aron et al. 1989). Romantic attractions are also more likely when one has just ended another romantic relationship (Aron et al. 1989), but are less likely when one is deeply committed to a current relationship (Johnson and Rusbult 1989). Finally, romantic attractions are more likely under conditions in which one is physiologically aroused (the arousal is misattributed to the person) or under unusual or challenging circumstances (which become associated with the person) (Aron et al. 1989).

6. Dyadic Factors

As noted earlier, a long-standing, thoroughly replicated finding is that attraction is greater toward people perceived to share one’s attitudes than to those perceived not to share one’s attitudes (Byrne 1971). Much of the effect is due to a dislike of those who do not share one’s attitudes, though shared attitudes also play some positive role (see Berscheid and Reis 1998). Actual shared attitudes are less important than perceived shared attitudes, and similarity of personality and backgrounds has generally shown little direct effect on initial attraction (see Berscheid and Reis 1998).

A number of studies have attempted to test the idea that opposites attract, or at least that there is an attraction between those with complementary needs (such as liking to take care of people and liking to be taken care of). For the most part, this research has not yielded impressive results (see Berscheid and Reis 1998). One suggestion, with some support, is that under conditions in which a relationship is unsure, people seek those who are similar, but when people are confident that a relationship is likely, similarity plays less of a role (Aron and Aron 1997).

Another kind of similarity that has been studied is matching on social value—such as similar levels of good looks (e.g., Walster et al. 1977). Research has shown that pairs of friends and pairs of lovers do indeed tend to be matched on attractiveness and that people tend to assume such matches on desirability overall (so that if one is shown a couple where one is much more good-looking than the other, people presume the less good-looking partner must be very successful or intelligent or have some other offsetting characteristic). However, studies of initial attraction suggest that when given the opportunity, everyone would prefer the most desirable partner. Only if the possibility of rejection is highly salient does one’s own level of desirability play much of a role in whom one is attracted to (or at least whom one will approach).

A highly influential influence on attraction is the discovery (or imagined discovery) that the other person likes oneself. Being liked or admired by a reasonably appropriate and attractive person plays a role in the vast majority of initial strong friendship and romantic attractions (Aron et al. 1989). Indeed, in accounts of friendship formation and falling in love, the moment of discovery of being liked is often emphasized as the moment of the onset of strong feelings of attraction.

7. Characteristics Of The Person To Whom One Is Attracted

Buss (1989) asked participants (mainly college students) in 37 different cultures to rate the importance of various characteristics in selecting a marital partner. The characteristics most preferred by both women and men were being a good companion, considerate, honest, affectionate, dependable, and intelligent. However, women, more than men, preferred mates described as college graduates and as having a good earning capacity; and men, more than women, preferred mates described as physically attractive. These findings, including the gender differences, have held up well in subsequent studies employing diverse research approaches. Other research has focused on more general characteristics. For example, Sadalla et al. (1987) found women and men both judged men displaying dominant behavior to be more sexually attractive, but that dominance played little or no role in either gender’s judgments of a woman’s sexual attractiveness.

Regarding physical appearance, a major area of research interest has been facial attractiveness. In one series of studies conducted with US samples, Cunningham (e.g., 1986) demonstrated that having large eyes, prominent cheekbones, a big smile, a large chin, and high-status clothing were all associated with a man’s attractiveness as judged by women. Women’s facial attractiveness as judged by men includes having large eyes, prominent cheekbones, and a big smile. However, unlike women’s preferences with regard to men, men prefer women with a small chin, a small nose, narrow cheeks, high eyebrows, and large pupils. Researchers studying facial attractiveness often interpret their results in terms of general traits of attractive faces being ones that are average and symmetrical, and that such traits serve as indications of evolutionary fitness.

Another recently researched aspect of physical appearance is body shape, particularly the waist-tohip ratio. This work, conducted mainly by Singh (e.g., 1993), posits that people are attracted to other-sex individuals with specific mathematical ratios of body fat distribution. Key findings are that women judge waste-to-hip ratios around 0.85–0.90 as most attractive in men, and that men judge ratios of about 0.7 as most attractive in women (in both cases, these ratios hold regardless of overall weight).

8. Future Directions

There is likely to be continued periodic interest in traditional issues such as similarities and differences, and there seems to be a growing interest in evolutionary approaches and the defining features of physical attractiveness. Two possibly emerging areas are understanding the role of attractiveness in long-term relationships and identifying neural systems involved in attractiveness perception.


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