The Psychology of Attraction

Attraction is a funny thing. It isn’t a choice; we don’t really get to decide who or what traits and characteristics we are attracted to. This isn’t a problem if you happen to be attracted to what’s good for you, but interestingly that isn’t always the case. Strictly defined as “the action or power of evoking interest in or liking for someone or something”, the reputable Urban Dictionary describes attraction as “easy to avoid but impossible to ignore”, and as “a force that pulls two [or more] people together regardless of their own will”. This is all too true.

You’ve surely wondered why it is you like someone, or asked yourself what it is about that person you like. When you are asked to justify your feelings for someone, friends asking “why them? What is it about them?!” your mind tries to pinpoint the reasons you are attracted to that particular person; you try to construct a list of sorts of all the things about that person you like. Why do I like them?

Attraction isn’t merely inexplicable and based entirely on personal preference; there is an evolutionary and scientific basis to explaining attraction and attractiveness. Interpersonal attraction refers to any type of positive feeling towards another, which can include liking, friendship, love, lust or even just admiration. There are many different influencing factors, but the main ones can be summed up under 4 main categories; physical attractiveness, proximity, similarity and reciprocity.

Physical attractiveness is, naturally enough, what primarily determines romantic attraction. Especially in the early stages of dating, people are attracted to people that are physically appealing to them. Research shows that this applies even more to men than it does to woman, with men paying more attention to looks and valuing physical attractiveness more than woman. Within the concept of physical attractiveness is what’s been coined “the matching hypothesis,” whereby people tend to go for people that are a similar level of attractiveness as they see themselves to be.

In the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, an article entitled “The Big, the Rich, and the Powerful: Physical, Financial, and Social Dimensions of Dominance in Mating and Attraction” by Angela D. Bryan, Gregory D. Webster, and Amanda L. Mahaffey, outlines some interesting insights drawn about attraction from an evolutionary perspective:

“Physical attractiveness preferences shared by both sexes are typically cues to physical health, including hair quality, oral health, lively gait and movement, facial averageness, and fluctuating (bodily) asymmetry. Men’s physical attractiveness preferences for women are typically cues to reproductive fitness, including youth, developed breasts, lower waist-to-hip ratios, lower body weights, and lower body mass indexes. In contrast, women’s physical attractiveness preferences for men are typically understood as cues indicative of gene quality and healthy testosterone production, including height, higher shoulder-to-hip ratios, high shoulder-to-waist ratios, and lower waist-to-chest ratios.”

Proximity and similarity are fairly comparable, and are pretty self-explanatory. Naturally, we tend to befriend people that are geographically close to us, and also who are similar to us in terms of age, background, likes and dislikes, etc. and these connections often form the beginnings of romantic relationships, and so would be considered an influencing factor in attractiveness. Reciprocity is also self-explanatory: more often than not, people like people who like them – simple as.

Romantic love can be separated into a category of its own, and further split into two main types that don’t always come hand-in-hand; passionate love is the lustful type, the intense one based on sexual desire, and compassionate love, which is a little less intense and a lot more practical, based on intimacy and commitment, being warm and close and having a genuine intent to maintain and put effort into a relationship.

Many may argue that there is a difference between genuine attraction and physical, sexual attraction. This is because sometimes, we may feel sexually attracted to someone we don’t particularly like as a person. This seems strange, but it happens. Why do we sometimes find ourselves being attracted to people we don’t necessarily like? In other words, why is it we find ourselves attracted to assholes or to people who may not be treating us the greatest?

I found an interesting theoretical approach to answering this question in an academic article by Pat Love (ironic enough) and Sunny Shulkin entitled “Imago Theory and The Psychology of Attraction”; The answer lies in the imago (im-ah’-go)— which refers to our unconscious image of love. This is based on a theory developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and his wife who worked together on a book they called Getting the Love You Want, in which they revealed that “we come into relationships with expectations of love that have been influenced by our early experience with caregivers”; as [Pat] Love and Shulkin explain further, “we are attracted to the person who brings us the form of love that feels familiar, for better or worse”. Well, this is pretty heavy and deep if you consider what it is implying. So, there’s a whole lot of truth in “we accept the love we think we deserve”.

I mean, you would think it only natural to be turned off by any negative traits, anything that wouldn’t be the best characteristic in a partner, but that isn’t the case. Unconsciously, you are sometimes drawn to traits or characteristics not because they are good or appealing or positive in any way, but just simply because they feel comfortable and familiar: we have seen them in other relationships, whether between our parents or those that surrounded us as we grew up. It’s the subconscious memories formed in childhood that have a significant influence over what it is we go for in a partner.

So there you have it, a few interesting facts about attraction that may or may not answer a few of the questions that boggle your mind when you catch yourself falling for someone.

Here are some more interesting facts about attraction for those interested:

  • Apparently we tend to be attracted to people that look like us… This could just be due to the “matching hypothesis”.
  • We also seem to be attracted to people who remind us of our parents, a strange one, but again possibly related to the imago effect; being attracted to what’s familiar. If this rings any bells, you may want to google “Oedipus complex.”
  • If you’re already physiologically aroused (e.g., from having just exercised) you are more likely to develop an attraction for anyone you may meet shortly after, as you may mistakenly attribute the source of your elevated heartbeat to the stranger instead of the true source of that arousal.
  • Drink does have an influence: “Beer goggles” really are a thing. Research has found that the drunker people get, the higher the attractiveness ratings they give to strangers. Alcohol also changes how attractive we perceive ourselves, which could explain that particular boldness drunk people seem to adopt, regardless of how shy or reserved otherwise.
  • If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, playing hard to get seems to work. But you need to be careful with this one as it can backfire. Researchers Dai, Dong, and Jia (2014) investigated the question, “When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction?” and they found that, while playing hard to get might increase feelings of “wanting” in others (a desire to pursue the aloof person), it might also decrease “liking” (positive feelings about the person).
  • When it comes to pick-up lines, it has been discovered that opening with a simple “hi” or “hello,” or leading with an innocuous question are the better and more effective strategies.
  • Attraction is a multi-sensory process. We aren’t just attracted to looks and traits or characteristics, but also to smell, and taste (how their mouth tastes when you kiss), and so on…
  • The things that heterosexual women find attractive in men vary depending on where they’re at in their menstrual cycle. Specifically, when women are at peak fertility, they tend to be attracted to “manlier” men (e.g., muscular guys with deep voices). (I came across a very funny tweet once, a girl asking how she could explain to a guy that the only reason she found him attractive and came on to him was because it was coming up to her period and now it’s over so… there you go, this is an actual thing, apparently.)
  • Heterosexual men tend to find women wearing red clothing more attractive than women wearing any other colour. Why? Some theorize that men have evolved a tendency to become aroused by this colour because women’s bodies naturally become red/pink during sexual arousal (e.g., many women experience a “sex flush” or reddish rash that appears primarily on the chest during arousal). 
  • Our patterns of sexual attraction appear to change seasonally. For instance, heterosexual men report greater attraction to women’s bodies and breasts in the winter months than they do in the summer months. (Must be a comfort thing?)

This article by me was originally published in the University Express newspaper in October 2017.

Sonic Brainwave

What would life be without music? According to Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, poet and cultural critic, life without music would be a mistake. This may seem a rather radical statement on the role that music plays in our lives, but it is entirely true; the importance of music in our world cannot be overstated. Music, it seems, has always played a major role in each and every society and tribal community throughout the course of human history, all of which had some form of music that was influenced by their culture. It is believed that the origins of music itself may possibly date back around 55,000 years. What’s more, the power and influence of music goes further than that level of societal and cultural importance; music “expresses that which cannot be said” (Victor Hugo), it “gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” (Plato). In the words of Jimi Hendrix, “music is a safe kind of high”, and a high it most certainly is.

It seems as though the power and influence of music holds no boundaries. Music has the capacity to evoke strong emotional responses from within us; music can make us feel euphorically happy and elated; music can make us feel intense sadness through sound alone, or through nostalgia for the memories that we attach to particular songs. Music is very strongly connected to memory. Just as we associate particular smells with different people or places, we associate particular songs with different memories; “I’ll Be There For You”, the Friends theme tune, will forever and always bring me back to my graduation night in secondary school. We also associate particular songs with particular people; the song your crush showed you will most likely remind you of them, or you’ll remember slow dancing with your boyfriend or girlfriend to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” whenever that song is played. A study carried out in 2009 by University of California, Davis, which mapped the brain while people listened to music, found that specific brain regions that are linked to autobiographical memories and emotions are activated when we listen to familiar music. The author of the study, Petr Janata, said “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye… Now we can see the association between those two things — the music and the memories”. These little phenomena beg the question: What does music actually do to us, to our brains, when we listen to it? Here are just a few of the occurrences explained…

What is actually happening up there, in our brains? First, the auditory cortex decomposes the music into its most basic, fundamental features such as volume and pitch; it works with the cerebellum to break down the musical information into its component parts: pitch, timbre, spatial location and duration. This information is processed by higher-order brain structures which analyse these components of the music and create a rich experience for the listener. The cerebellum has connections with the brain’s emotional centre, the amygdala, which is heavily involved in impulse control. The amygdala is processed by the mesolimbic system, which is involved in arousal, pleasure and the transmission of neurotransmitters like dopamine. This initiates a dopamine rush – the same dopamine rush we feel while eating deliciously satisfying food or having sex – producing that sensational feeling of “chills”. So yes, music is up there among the greatest joys in life; food and sex.

The Power of the Beat. According to neuroscience, our brains process rhythm differently to melody. Researchers led by Michael Thaut of Colorado State University’s Center for Biomedical Research in Music found pattern, meter and tempo processing tasks activated “right, or bilateral, areas of frontal, cingulate, parietal, prefrontal, temporal and cerebellar cortices,” while tempo processing “engaged mechanisms sub serving somatosensory and premotor information”. This has led to some intriguing discoveries: groovy music promotes corticospinal excitability, which is the cause of the strong urge to dance. Music can also cause blood to pump into the muscles in our legs, which many believe is what causes people to tap their feet. Rhythm can cause changes in heart rate and respiratory patterns, which can result in these internal cycles falling into sync with the music.

“I see music. It’s more than just what I hear.” Could Beyoncé be right here? Can one see music? Do you find yourself imagining yourself featuring in a music video for the song your listening to, creating scenarios and going through all the drama in your head? This is because listening to music activates the visual cortex found at the back of the brain in the occipital lobe. Research has found that some music caused listeners to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes, progression and mood of the music they were listening to. And so, there is in fact scientific validity behind Beyoncé’s claim that she can see music. Nice one, Bey.

Can music heal? Yes, it can. Research carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) has shown that one in five young adults aged 19-24 experience mental health problems. Alternative treatment methods include art therapy, meditation and yoga, but music, because of its universality, easy accessibility and transmission, has perhaps the greatest potential in terms of alternative methods of therapy, and can aid people who may be unable to access other forms of care. Controlled treatment outcome studies have shown that music therapy improves symptoms and social functioning among schizophrenics. Music therapy has also proven efficient in independent treatment for reducing depressionanxiety and chronic pain. In the UK-based Journal of Advanced Nursing, a paper from 2006 about the ‘Effect of music on power, pain, depression and disability’ stated that listening to music can reduce chronic pain from a range of painful conditions, including osteoarthritis, disc problems and rheumatoid arthritis, by up to 21% and depression by up to 25%.

Music has a positive effect on health in three main ways. Firstly, through the positive physical effects of music, which include direct biological changes such as reducing heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels. Secondly, relatable and thought provoking lyrics that act as a way through which we can express ourselves help us to increase positive thought, aid in our ability to empathise and promote helping behaviour; music along with lyrics touches people, and may be able to reach more people than psychotherapists could. This ties in with the final mechanism, that music is a connecting experience; it brings us together, and research has shown that improved social connection and support, which can be brought about through music, can improve overall mental health outcomes, and have a profound impact on individuals’ mental health.

Now you know why you get those indescribable, incredible feeling ‘chills’ when you hear the songs you love; the goose bumps that prickle your skin, moving in a wave over your arms, emanating from that shiver down your spine. You know why your heart flutters, and falls into sync with the rhythm of the music; the music is evoking emotion and you are experiencing such powerful feeling, all of which is caused by the sound; the beat, the tone, the timbre, the rhythm, the lyrics, all combined…. There is hard scientific and biological reasoning behind the why and how music makes us feel the way that is does. How incredibly awesome is that?  

This article was originally published in the 2016/2017 UCC Express, in February 2017, available online from March 1st 2017 at