When the Laws of Attraction Don’t Apply

Source: Richard Foster/Flickr

What attracts you to a potential partner? Good looks? A great personality? A good sense of humor? We are typically attracted to those who are physically attractive, similar to us, and familiar to us (Fugère et al., 2015). However, these factors don’t always inspire attraction, in fact, there are often direct contradictions to these fundamental laws of attraction.  

Physical Attractiveness

Romantic attraction often begins with the experience of physical attraction, guiding us toward potential partners who are healthy, age appropriate, and able to reproduce (Weeden and Sabini, 2005). However, the importance of physical attractiveness may be overestimated. To appeal to us, potential mates do not necessarily need to be attractive, only attractive to us. In fact, many of us fail to approach attractive individuals because of our fear of rejection (Greitemeyer, 2010). Instead, it seems that we adjust our perceptions of others’ physical attractiveness based on our own level of physical attractiveness. For example, more attractive people tend to perceive fewer others as attractive while less attractive individuals consider a broader range of potential partners as appealing (Montoya, 2008). This adjustment of our perceptions of physical attractiveness seems to be good for our relationships; finding a partner who shares a similar level of physical attractiveness to our own can enhance our long-term relationship success (Feingold, 1998; Fugère et al., 2015). Furthermore, the longer we know each other, the less important physical attractiveness becomes to beginning and maintaining a long-term relationship (Hunt et al., 2015). 

Perhaps the law of physical attraction should be modified, we don’t necessarily look for partners who are physically attractive, but physically attractive to us. Real-life dating and mating decisions seem to reflect this modified law of attraction, we choose to pursue relationships with those who are attractive to us (see Hunt et al., 2015; Luo and Zhang, 2009; Thao et al., 2010). There are also good reasons to avoid extremely attractive partners, relationships involving highly attractive individuals are less likely to endure over the long term (Ma-Kellams et al., 2017).

Similarity

Perceived similarity is a strong indicator of liking and seems to be an important precursor to both friendships and romantic relationships (Byrne, 1961; Byrne, 1971; Byrne and Blaylock, 1963). We tend to like others who are similar to us in terms of attitudes, educational background, demographic characteristics, and even first names (see Fugère et al., 2015). However, when we think about our relationships, we often think about personality similarity, rather than other types of similarity. In fact, we are less likely to resemble our romantic partners in personality characteristics than we are to resemble our romantic partners in attitudes and values (Luo and Klohnen, 2005). 

In terms of personality, it seems that once again the law of attraction should be modified. We do not seem to match our partners in terms of absolute levels of personality characteristics (for example, one partner is likely to be more extraverted or less conscientious than the other). What seems to be important in personality similarity is the overall pattern for both partners across personality traits. If both you and your partner are relatively more extraverted and agreeable and less neurotic and open to new experiences, your personality patterns across traits may be more similar than your levels on any one particular trait. This “profile-based similarity” is more strongly associated with romantic satisfaction than similarity on individual traits (Luo and Klohnen, 2005).

Familiarity 

The classic theory of mere exposure (Zajonc, 1968) suggests that the more we encounter a person, the more we should like that person.  Experimental evidence shows that we find photographs more attractive when we see them more often (Zajonc, 1968) and people more attractive when we encounter them more often (Moreland and Beach, 1992). We even like others more when we interact with them more frequently online (Reis et al., 2011). Furthermore, we feel more attraction to those who physically resemble us and our family members (Fraley and Marks, 2010). However, increased familiarity does not always lead to increased liking. Encountering individuals frequently can lead to liking or disliking (such as when we have wonderful neighbors or noisy neighbors, Ebbeson et al., 1976). Furthermore, novelty can sometimes be more attractive than familiarity. Little et al. (2013) showed that after being exposed to photographs of women, female participants rated those familiar women as more attractive, but men rated those familiar women as less attractive. Additionally, these authors also found that although women rated men’s faces as more attractive when the men resembled women’s current partners, men rated women’s faces as less attractive if they resembled men’s current partners. Even women may prefer less familiar partners at certain times. Salvatore et al. (2017) discovered that women in the most fertile portion of their menstrual cycles found men from other ethnic backgrounds (but not men from the same ethnic background) more attractive. These researchers speculate that strangers may be more attractive due to the unconcious desire for genetically diverse offspring.

So once again the laws of attraction may need to be revised, familiarity may be attractive under some circumstances, and novelty may be more attractive under other circumstances. 

If it seems that the laws of attraction are not working in the ways you expect, consider these exceptions to the laws of attraction. 

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