The psychology of attraction

by Marc Wilson / 17 November, 2012
How is it that we gravitate towards people like us, yet opposites also attract?
The psychology of attraction

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie get a lot of women’s magazine coverage. And why not – they’re famous, they’re in a glamorous business and it makes sense that two such good lookers should set up house together. Indeed, based on the “homophily” principle – that we’re attracted to people who are like us – this is unsurprising. Birds of a feather flock together, after all.

Married couples tend to show strong similarity in age, race, religion, class, personality, attitudes, education, intelligence and physical attractiveness, but some of these are more important than others for long-term relationship success. Similarity in personality tends to produce happier relationships, and differences over things like religion and parenting aspirations (whether you want kids) can be serious game-breakers.

But it’s not always Brad and Ange is it? What about craggy Mick Jagger and leggy Jerry Hall? Marilyn Manson and Dita von Teese? They might have celebrity, but both Mick and Marilyn were punching above their weight in the looks department. Or even (shudder) Anna Nicole Smith and J Howard Marshall, who was more than 60 years older than her when they married? Maybe opposites really do attract. On average, it’s probably more likely that similarity attracts. We tend to choose friendships, or at least pursue friendships, with people we like, and we also tend to like people who are like us. After all, when someone agrees with us about something, that affirms our own beliefs. As a young researcher, I surveyed people about their friendships over the course of the year that coincided with the first MMP election.

People who vote for a particular political party project their political preferences, presuming that their friends think alike. When I asked people in these extended networks who they actually voted for, their friends tended to be right. This was particularly true for people who liked smaller parties. New Zealand First supporters, for instance, surrounded themselves with like-minded others, at least until after the election, when New Zealand First joined with National. After that marriage of convenience, I couldn’t get anyone to even admit they’d ever considered voting for Winston Peters.

At the same time, dissimilarity can cause strong dislike. In fact, we probably dislike people who are really different more than we like people who are similar to us. But back to attractiveness and relationships. One of my favourite lectures focuses on interpersonal attraction – what draws us to particular others. It’s relevant to everyone and not just on a theoretical level. I think we’re also plain nosy. Physical attractiveness isn’t the whole answer, but it’s a big part. We might talk about the importance of personality or sense of humour, which both men and women give priority to. But as far as first impressions go, it’s looks that count.

In one famous early study, participants were invited to take part in a computerised dating demonstration – based on completing a personality-style test, they would be matched with their ideal partner. After the apparently computer-assisted pairing and subsequent “date”, participants were asked whether they would like to pursue a second date. The results showed that similarity of background, personality and interests were poor predictors of potential second dates, and physical attractiveness the best. The punchline, of course, is that partners were randomly assigned. Never trust the psychological researcher.

Despite men and women both acknowledging that attractiveness is important, cross-culturally men tend to be more attracted to physically attractive women, while women are attracted to men whom they judge to possess status and wealth. The explanation for this is the evolutionary imperative – that men with resources are best-placed to care for their offspring, while the things men find attractive in women are markers of fertility and good health. Again, it’s more complicated than this. But it does seem to explain the whole Mick/Jerry and Marilyn/Dita scenario.
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