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Hey Good Looking: The Science of Interpersonal Attraction

By: , Posted on: February 25, 2016

Source: Wikimedia
Source: Wikimedia

Interpersonal attraction refers to the desire to be around and form a friendship or romantic relationship with another. Not surprisingly, people like others who are good-looking. Research on heterosexual romantic attraction shows that people talk more to, are friendlier toward, request more dates from and prefer those who are physically attractive (Walster et al., 1966). This preference exists across cultures (Buss and Schmitt, 1993) and for both sexes. Men express a greater emphasis on the physical attractiveness of potential mates than women do, but interestingly, women’s implicit (i.e., not consciously recognized) preferences for physical attractiveness (as assessed with response time and date requests) are just as strong as that of men (Eastwick et al., 2011). Research indicates that looks are also important in nonromantic attraction, finding that people are more interested in potential friends who are attractive (Black, 1974). So, the liking for attractive others is quite robust, transcending gender, culture, and relationship type.

From an evolutionary perspective, people like good-looking mates because they contribute to the viability of one’s offspring. One reason for this is that physically attractive people are healthier in some ways, suggesting that the preference for good-looking mates represents an attempt to find high-quality genes with which to mix one’s own. For example, facial and bodily symmetry is attractive and is also associated with good health (Perilloux et al., 2010). Second, the physical features that men and women find attractive in the opposite sex correspond with the differential sexual strategies that each sex uses to augment the viability of their genes in future generations. Men, who have low minimal costs in reproduction, can have many offspring and invest little in each; they therefore prefer physical indicators of fertility in women such as youthful features and a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio (Furnham et al., 2005Jones, 1995). Women, who have higher minimal costs in reproduction, invest more in the survival and success of a few offspring and are therefore tuned to physical indicators (signs of status, such as a large jaw and prominent forehead; Rhodes, 2006) that a man can provide resources for the offspring.

In addition to augmenting this evolutionary explanation for heterosexual romantic attraction, a social perspective can also explain homosexual romantic and general/friendship attraction. First, being physically attractive carries social benefits, not only for oneself, but also for one’s romantic partner and friends. For example, men received more favorable evaluations when they were with an attractive versus unattractive woman (Sigall and Landy, 1973), and both sexes were seen as more attractive and credible when they had attractive friends (Walther et al., 2008).

Additionally, people tend to assume a whole host of good qualities about attractive people, including that they are nicer, more successful, have better marriages, and are happier in general. This “what is beautiful is good” bias (Dion et al., 1972) may be true to some small extent; for example, when participants had a phone conversation with a target (who they could not see), they rated the physically attractive targets as more likable and socially skillful (Goldman and Lewis, 1977). The question, then, is whether these desirable attributes are inherent in physically attractive people or result from receiving preferential treatment based solely on looks. One line of research supports the latter explanation. Specifically, when judges believed that they were talking with an attractive (versus unattractive) opposite sex target, both conversation partners were warmer and more animated regardless of the target’s actual attractiveness (Synder et al., 1977Andersen and Bem, 1981). Therefore, the “what is beautiful is good” bias seems to be at least partially a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This excerpt was taken from the article Psychology of Interpersonal Attraction by Shelly Zhou which examines the major predictors of interpersonal attraction and the desire to be around and form a friendship or romantic relationship with another person. The article is included in the PROSE award winning International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Second Edition which offers a source of social and behavioral science reference material that is broader and deeper than any other. Covering topics from Cognitive Psychology to Artificial Intelligence to Neuroscience to Urban Studies to Evolution and all that is in between, it is the definitive resource for undergraduates, graduate students and researchers. Check it out here.

International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavior Sciences

Take a look at some of the related articles:

Psychology of Love and Intimacy by Panos Kordoutis

Sexual Motivation by Martha K. McClintock

Online Dating by Monica T. Whitty

Anthropology of Friendship by Bettina Beer and Don Gardner

Friendship During Adolescence and Cultural Variations by Hildegunn Fandrem

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