Interpersonal Attraction What makes a person physically attractive?

attractionMore than 40 years ago, Hatfield and her colleagues (1966) set out to determine which traits and characteristics best explained interpersonal attraction. They randomly paired college men and women for a blind date, and in return, participants completed a number of personality and interest measures, background questionnaires and a survey following the date.

A key question was whether participants would be interested in a subsequent date with their partner, and if so, which measures best explained their interest. Unexpectedly – for none of the researchers’ own hypotheses were supported – only one variable reliably predicted interest: their partners’ physical attractiveness.

This finding has since come to epitomise and exemplify one of the most ubiquitous findings in the psychological literature: that beauty matters. Indeed, research over the past four decades has demonstrated profound and broad-reaching implications of physical attractiveness for people’s lives. As might be expected, attractive people are treated differently from others more generally.

Research on social interactions, for example, has shown that attractive people are afforded more personal space, are more likely to win arguments and are more trusted with personal secrets. Other research is consistent with these findings, showing that attractive people are considered more intelligent, happier, more successful, perceived as having a better personality, and more likely to get married.

These studies demonstrate what has come to be known as the beautiful is good bias. Research repeatedly demonstrates a positive correlation between physical attractiveness and treatment from others, leading physically attractive individuals to have better jobs, higher incomes, and more friends than others.

Such studies leave us in no doubt that physical beauty can have a profound impact on an individual’s daily life. What such studies do not answer, however, is how we should define attractiveness. This is an important question, not least because it colours the way we examine the social impact of attractiveness, as well as questions concerning body imageand body esteem.

Defining attractiveness

It used to be said of attractiveness, as a judge once said of pornography, that it is difficult to explain but easy to recognise. It comes a surprise, therefore, to learn that human beings have been trying to do just that – explain beauty – for centuries. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that beauty was a matter of having the right mathematical proportions. Indeed, mathematical functions of beauty, such as Plato’s golden section, also featured prominently in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and other artists of the Renaissance.

But the search for mathematical keystones of beauty began to recede in the 18th century, when philosophers like Edmund Burke and David Hume declared that beauty was subjectively-defined. For Hume, beauty was “no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

The idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – that different people have different ideas about beauty and therefore do not agree about who is, and who is not, beautiful – was for a long while the dominant view in much of philosophy and art.

In contrast to the subjective view of beauty, however, psychologists have argued that there may be objectively-defined criteria of attractiveness. Socialization theorists, for example, emphasize the effects on judgements of beauty of social and cultural norms, and stress the idea that social stereotypes such as the “attractiveness is good” bias create their own reality. A different idea that is currently very popular in both lay and scientific circles is that beauty is a reliable index of health and fertility. This is the evolutionary psychological view of human attractiveness.

Evolutionary psychology

Attractiveness, say evolutionary psychologists, has played an important role in human evolutionary history, leading them to talk about survival of the prettiest (borrowing the term from Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”). The rationale behind this idea is that reproduction is the only way for an inherited characteristic to be passed from one generation to the next.

Thus, evolution favors those organisms that get to reproduce, and whose offspring themselves get to reproduce. In other words, having sex which results in the birth of offspring is the sole way of achieving evolutionary “success.” Because of this, living things have evolved a wide range of different instinctual behaviors to optimize reproduction.

In the evolutionary psychological view of human history, the central mating problem for men was inseminating fertile females, while the central problem for women was obtaining “good genes” from high-quality males and perhaps some parental provisioning and protection. For evolutionary psychologists, these remain the central problems for men and women today. Under the rubric of sexual strategies, they have postulated integrated sets of behaviors that organize and guide an individual’s reproductive effort.

Women, it is said, choose males based on their high status and ability to provide resources for their offspring. As a result, men strive to acquire more resources than other men in order to attract women, and women developed preferences for various cues in men that signal either possession, or the likelihood of acquiring, resources.

On the other hand, among the features that men look to are youth and physical appearance. According to this idea, human ancestors needed to assess women for their youth and health, but they could only base this on such cues as clear skin, “baby-like” facial features, a particular body shape or other characteristics that indicated good health. The best cues of all are those that are: Uniquely elaborated in our species; Show considerable difference between men and women (that is, they are sexually dimorphic); Are grown only after puberty (sexual maturity); Are manifestly valued as sexual signals; and Are selectively elaborated through ornament and make-up.

Such cues probably evolved as indicators of fertility, viability, age, health or lack of infestation by pathogens and parasites. This evolutionary psychological model helps to make sense of many of the empirical findings from experimental social psychology. For example, men from a range of cultures have been shown to favor youthful-looking women. If such preferences are the result of inherited mechanisms, then men would seem to be “wired up” to choose reproductive partners whose youthful fertility offers the best chance of genetic profiles being reproduced.

The waist-to-hip ratio

The ultimate success or failure of evolutionary psychology must of course be judged on its products. Does it provide us with plausible and illuminating insights into human nature or human behaviour? One example of evolutionary psychological research which highlights both its predictive power and its limitations are studies that highlight the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) as an indicator of a woman’s attractiveness.

One of the key determinants of attractiveness that prefigured in early attractiveness research was an individual’s overall body weight, measured as the body mass index (BMI). Various studies found that women were considered more attractive, better mate choices and more positive in general if they were thin.

However, Singh (1993) presented evidence that it was body fat distribution, rather than overall weight, which was related to both judgements of a woman’s attractiveness and potential reproductive success. Singh’s reasons for investigating these particular morphological features are primarily due to its uniqueness. The features concerned with the measurement of the WHR, the waist and the buttocks, are unique to humans and it is therefore possible that it serves some unique functional significance.

Before and after puberty, body shape differences between men and women are negligible and only during early reproductive life is there maximal differentiation. This is brought about by the active sex hormones during and after puberty, which influence the anatomical distribution of adipose tissue. In women, oestrogen stimulates fat cells to accumulate in the buttocks and thighs, and inhibits accumulation in the abdominal region.

By contrast, testosterone in men maximally stimulates accumulation of fat cells in the abdominal region and inhibits fat deposits in the thighs and buttocks. These differences produce gynoid and android fat distribution respectively, which in turn can be measured by the WHR (the ratio between the circumference of the waist and the circumference of the hips).

An important part of Singh’s evolutionary predictions is the finding that the WHR is related to a variety of life outcomes. Susceptibility to various major physical diseases and psychological disorders is conveyed by the size of the WHR. In addition, Singh points out that the WHR signals all conditions that affect women’s reproductive status. For example, in his summary of this research, Singh (1993) argues that the probability of successful pregnancy induction is affected by the WHR and that married women with higher WHRs have more difficulty becoming pregnant.

For Singh, the main problem facing our hunter-gatherer ancestors in evolutionary history was the identification of mate value. Over evolutionary time, therefore, perceptual mechanisms were selected in men to detect and use information conveyed by the WHR in determining a women’s potential as a mate. To investigate, Singh developed a set of two-dimensional line drawings of the female figure, which were systematically varied with respect to overall body weight and the WHR. In a series of experiments, Singh reported that low WHRs (indicative of curvaceousness) were judged as the most attractive.

For Singh, the WHR acts as a wide first-pass filter, which serves to exclude women who are unhealthy or who have low reproductive capacity. It is only after this culturally invariant filter is passed that other features, such as the face, skin or weight, become utilized in mate selection. The filter is “culturally invariant” or universal to all men because it was an adaptive assessment of female mate value for all males in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. Singh’s studies have been replicated in a whole host of (industrialized) countries, with the similarity of results being taken as evidence for the universal nature of WHR as a signal for mate selection.

Body weight

At first glance, this appears to be an excellent example of evolutionary psychology in action: Singh goes beyond lay beliefs by predicting that the WHR will be the primary attribute of physical attraction regardless of the cultural setting. Yet, in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that this is not the whole story. Some researchers have argued, for example, that Singh’s findings are the result of an artefact in the experimental design.

Tovée and associates (2002) pointed out that Singh’s line drawings varied WHR within each weight category by altering the width of the torso. This not only changes the WHR of the stimuli but also the apparent body weight (measured as BMI, or weight in kilogrammes divided by height in metres squared). The stimuli thus confound WHR differences with changes in BMI and so the apparent preference for a WHR of 0.70 could simply be a preference for slim body shape.

Indeed, a growing body of literature has explored the relative contributions of WHR and BMI to judgements of female physical attractiveness, and these generally find that WHR is a weaker predictor of ratings. Most of these studies have used technologically advanced sets of stimuli (e.g., photographic and three-dimensional images), and typically find that the “effect sizes” of BMI and WHR in attractiveness ratings are vastly different: variation in BMI almost always accounts for more than 70 percent of the variance, whereas WHR accounts of less than 5 percent (Tovée et al., 2002).

Yet others have questioned the universal nature of preferences for low WHRs. Several studies among hunter-gatherer tribes have found that they generally prefer high over low WHRs, and in any case body weight is a better predictor of attractiveness ratings (Wetsman & Marlowe, 1999). Among the Matsigenka of Peru, for example, Yu and Shepard (1999) found that an isolated group ranked line-drawings first by weight (high preferred to low) and only then high WHR over low WHR, diametrically opposed to findings in industrial societies.

Swami and Tovée (2005) compared the relative contributions of BMI and WHR to ratings of female attractiveness in different cultures. Their results have corroborated the previous finding that BMI is the greater predictor of attractiveness than WHR, regardless of the cultural setting. Indeed, this study showed that what is an attractive body weight varies with resource availability, with observers of higher socio-economic status (SES) in general finding thinner women more attractive than observers of low SES.

Evolutionary psychological explanations of this finding based on “adaptive” body weights for different ethnicities have been partially ruled out, and possible psychological mechanisms that emphasize core cultural attributes and individual learning have been proposed instead.

What, then, should we make of the WHR and attractiveness? One possibility is that the WHR affects attractiveness ratings only indirectly. Recent research has highlighted the possibility that the WHR is used to make social judgements about gender. In other words, the WHR seems to be involved in differentiating men from women, or pregnant from non-pregnant women. Moreover, the WHR is strongly linked with perceived femininity, and to the extent that femininity is associated with female attractiveness, women with sex-typical WHRs should be considered highly attractive.

Within this paradigm, there is room for both evolutionary and socialization explanations. Underlying biology may direct a preference for WHRs that are sex-typical, but culture and learning may influence proximate preferences more strongly. Indeed, there is now a greater recognition that evolutionary psychological models of attraction are altogether too one-sided.

Accepted uncritically, most evolutionary psychological theories degenerate into absurd, misogynist claims that serve to perpetuate prejudices and discrimination (e.g., the idea that men occupy positions of power in society because it is “natural” or the idea that men have mental modules that direct them to rape under appropriate circumstances). At a more basic level, most contemporary researchers are keen to emphasize learned and experiential components of attraction alongside possible evolutionary preferences. That is, culture and biology should be seen as working together and not in isolation.

Temporal and situational factors

Recent studies have further highlighted temporal and situational factors that may affect interpersonal attraction. For instance, Nelson and Morisson (2005) examined the effect of situational environmental conditions on ratings of female attractiveness. Their studies have shown that feelings of resource scarcity can affect preferences, with hungry participants judging slightly heavier potential partners as more attractive than satiated participants. Importantly, this finding mirrors patterns of cultural differences in preferences for body weight.

Just as hungry participants within a particular culture prefer a slightly heavier potential partner, so relatively poorer cultures idealize heavier body weights than relatively socio-economically developed societies. It is likely that the subjective experience of resource deprivation (such as hunger) provides implicit cues about collective resources in a society, and that people use these cues to construct their preferences.

Through participation in socio-culturally specific processes and practices, individuals come to have an understanding and a feeling of what is ideal, for example with regards to idealised body weights. Individuals who share similar beliefs interact in social episodes in local worlds, and these interactions (along with cultural institutions) shape the individual’s psychological experience.

Thus, what is desirable in a particular socio-economic context appears desirable in the eyes of individuals, and what is culturally meaningful becomes meaningful to these individuals. As a consequence, the cultural values are internalized and represented in individual psychological tendencies, and they are used by individuals to guide their actions and preferences.

It is possible to reconcile such findings with some evolutionary theories. For instance, the finding that hunger affects judgements of attractiveness in predictable ways suggests strongly that there exist proximate mechanisms influencing attraction at the individual level. At the same time, such mechanisms may be shaped by evolutionary factors. One possibility is that in times of hardship or prolonged resource scarcity, we should be attracted to features that index environmental security. Because only people with resources will be able to put on body fat during times of scarcity, it makes sense to prefer slightly heavier potential partners. This is why almost all cultures have or had ideals of attraction that emphasized heavier or plump bodies.

Such a model relies on the interplay between evolutionary, sociocultural and individual mechanisms, and has the advantage of not privileging one aspect of human nature (the biological) over another (the sociocultural). A comprehensive understanding of any particular psychological tendency, such as judgements of body weight, requires some analysis of the collective reality of which that tendency is a constituent part.

The collective reality that grounds and affords this psychological tendency includes human evolutionary history as well as socio-culturally and historically rooted ideas and values, institutions and social practices, which reflect and promote these ideas and values. Moreover, it will include a web of everyday social interactions, which represent and promote these ideas.

Individual differences

Just as investigations of preferences for body weight have highlighted variability across cultures, it is also likely that there exist individual differences in ratings of attractiveness within cultures. This suggests that it is important to understand the social nature of attraction. Although we may decide that human evolutionary history has had profound effects in shaping human nature, behaviors such as partner selection and mating strategies must ultimately be explained proximately.

One important social factor that may moderate physical attraction is reciprocity, that is, we like those who like us, and dislike those who dislike us. In a classic study conducted in the mid-1950s, Dittes and Kelley (1956) had participants join a small discussion group. During the discussion, they led participants to believe that other group members either liked or disliked them. They found that participants who believed they were liked were more attracted to the group than those who believed they were disliked.

However, various factors may mediate the relationship between reciprocity and liking, including individual attachment styles or the self-esteem of the observers. For example, Dittes (1959) carried out another group experiment in which participants were classified as having high or low self-esteem. Participants were then placed either in a satisfying condition (the group’s behavior toward them was positive) or a frustrating condition (negative group behavior). For participants who were low in self-esteem, attraction to the group depended on how the group behaved. By contrast, for those high in self-esteem, the difference in attraction was not significant suggesting that for people with high self-esteem, liking is not affected by acceptance or rejection.

The effects of reciprocity can also interact with the nature of the situation. In some situations, we may highly value praise from another person; in other situations, we have realise that he or she has an ulterior motive in praising us, and so praise does not elicit liking. We also attach greater value to praise from strangers than from our friends and family, from whom we expect praise. The pattern in which the praise is received is also influential. An interesting example is the gain-loss hypothesis: we tend to like most those who initially dislike us but then warm to us, and we dislike most those people who like is initially but then turn cold. An explanation for this effect is that it involved anxiety reduction. When we experience rejection, our anxiety rises; but when rejection changes to acceptance, the anxiety is reduced so that we experience the pleasure of being liked.

Proximity and similarity

Most theories of attraction focus on physical characteristics of the observed, such as their body weight. Both non-physical attributes can also play an important mediating role in determining who is, and who is not, consider physically attractive. One possibility is that the personality of the observed individual determines our attraction: we perceive as more physically attractive people who we know have a cheerful or warm personality. This highlights yet another aspect of interpersonal attraction, namely the social interactions that take place between individuals which lead to relationships.

Within social psychology, two key factors that are known to affect attractiveness ratings of people we know are proximity (or propinquity) and similarity. Though it may seem obvious, the physical proximity of one person to another is a potent facilitator of attractiveness. In a famous study of a housing complex, Festinger, Schachter and Black (1950) found participants had more friends who were living on the same floor as them, rather than on other floors or in other buildings. Even within the same floor, participants were more likely to be friends with their next-door neighbour than they were with someone at the end of the corridor.

Moreover, proximity allows other factors to come into play in determining interpersonal attraction, such as familiarity. Proximity generally leads to repeated exposure and greater familiarity, and therefore more liking. Familiarity enhances liking as a part of a more general effect in which repetitive presentation of stimuli increases liking for them. The familiarity effect also extends to the faces of strangers, which are judged as more liked and more attractive when they are seen more often. In contrast, when something familiar seems different, people feel uncomfortable. For example, people do not usually like mirror reversals of photos of their own or others’ faces.

Another social factor which moderates attractiveness is similarity of attitudes or values. It is often said that opposites attract, but within the psychological literature there is very little evidence this complementarity view. Rather, the evidence suggests that people who are evenly matched in their physical appearance, social background and personality are more likely to be attracted to one another. Studies of long-term relationships have confirmed that at the time of initial testing, partners are similar in a number of aspects such as age and education. Over time, partners become even more similar on measures of mental abilities and attitudes.

But similarity in attitudes can also work in different ways. In another classic study, Newcomb (1961) gave students rent-free accommodation in return for filling in questionnaires about their attitudes and values. The first questionnaires were filled in before students arrived at the university. Over the course of the semester, attraction between students and attitude changes were measured, and the results showed that in the first few weeks, attraction was related to proximity. However, as the semester progressed, attraction related most closely to similarity of pre-acquaintance attitudes.

Such studies led to the formulation of a “law of attraction,” which argued that attraction towards a person bears a linear relationship to the proportion of attitudes associated with that person. But the law is intended to be more generally applicable than just to attitudes in common between two people. Anything that other people do that agrees with your perception of things is reinforcing. The more other people agree the more reinforcing they are and the more you are attracted to them.

Conversely, differences in attitudes and interests can lead to dislike and avoidance. One possible explanation for this is that the recognition that we like something that someone else does not is a cognitively imbalanced state that makes us feel uncomfortable. One way to resolve this is by deciding that we do not like that person, thus re-establishing cognitive consistency.

The “serious” nature of attractiveness

There is no doubt that interpersonal relationships and physical attractiveness will continue to be studied and debated in future years. What, perhaps, is more of an issue is the impact that the pursuit of attractiveness can have on individuals. If we uncritically accept the idea that there are “laws” of attractiveness, which are universal to all cultures and times, then we serve to legitimize the pursuit of seemingly unattainable ideals (not everyone can have the “ideal” WHR or the perfect face). And the marketplace has its influence here too. Many psychologists have argued that contemporary Euro-American culture has become preoccupied with the pursuit of the optimally healthy and attractive body.

Healthcare professionals now promote weight loss because of data on the medical risk of obesity. But while it is men who tend to be most at risk, it is overwhelmingly women who diet and who are expected to live up to societal standards of attractiveness. Research has suggested that, although men are increasingly expected to live up to masculine ideals, women on the whole are less happy with their bodies than men are with theirs.

Weight appears to be central to this difference, and women are more likely to be judged by their size and shape. Representations of thin (bordering on being underweight) women are judged to be the most feminine and attractive, yet it is average-weight men who are usually seen as the most masculine and attractive. In other words, there is a great deal more pressure on women to be slim than there is on men. These differences have been implicated in the rise in eating and body image disorders.

Eating and body image disorders have long been identified in the West, and most theorists concur that it is the idealization of the thin body type that has led to the development of such pathology. As the image of beauty that is promoted becomes increasingly slender, women in most Euro-American settings show evidence of dissatisfaction with the bodies and pressure to conform to ideals of attractiveness. And with increasing socio-economic development and the impact of globalization, what some authors see as an endemic pursuit of beauty in the West can now be found virtually in all corners of the globe.


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I would like to acknowledge all the help of my friend and colleague Professor Viren Swami in the writing of this article and many others in the psychology of attractiveness.


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