What You Don't Know About The Science Of Attraction

Illustrated by Ly Ngo, Photo: Image Source/REX USA.
Valentine's Day is on the way, and whether you're paired up or not, it's only natural to ponder whether or not there's such a thing as "the one." It's time to forget the pickup lines and personality tests: Here's what science says actually makes us physically and emotionally attractive to others — and compatible with them as well. 

What gets us noticed?

Before anything else can happen, you've got to have an "in." What is it that's going to catch someone else's attention? One factor might be your facial symmetry. By looking at which faces we find the most attractive, researchers have found that our favorites tend to be symmetrical. But, that doesn't mean you have to have the features of a supermodel. We're actually drawn to faces that look average — artificially-created, perfectly symmetrical faces, meanwhile, tend to be disconcerting rather than cute. Other studies suggest we're into faces that reflect certain traits related to hormone expression, such as men's large, defined jawbones. 

The thinking usually goes that we find these things so attractive because, evolutionarily speaking, they're signs of good genes: These are the people we want to make babies with, because those babies will have the best chance of surviving in this cold, dark world. However, a recent study indicates that asymmetry isn't actually related to a likelihood of illness — knowledge that has led some people to disregard the previous idea that we seek out symmetry for its good health indications. Instead, research suggests there may be some correlation between symmetrical facial features and certain personality traits, such as extraversion and openness, that humans like.

When we're on the lookout for "the one," other genetic factors could come into play. For instance, we may favor partners with complimentary MHC genetics in order to beef up our offspring's immune systems. But, although there's an entire dating site based on this idea, there's not enough evidence to suggest we should be basing our relationships on genetic compatibility. And, even if these are some of our deciding relationship factors, they probably aren't the predominant ones

Our genes do have some relationship to our body odor, and smell does play a role in whom we're into. One oft-cited study had heterosexual women sniff mens' shirts at different points during their menstrual cycles. As their hormones fluctuated, so did the women's preferences for different scents, often depending on the guys' MHC profile. And, perhaps predictably, a few small studies suggest that homosexual men and women respond differently to male and female hormone-dependent scents than heterosexual people do. For women, using hormonal birth control has also been found to change our preferences. Oh, and those instant-attraction pheromones we're always hearing about? Probably not that helpful. Although they do exist, they don't function the same way in humans as they do in other mammals.

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Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
What makes us "click" with someone?

When we find someone physically attractive, we tend to find that person attractive in a lot of other ways, too. This "halo effect" causes us to rate those we find sexier as also being more trustworthy, powerful, and competent. A recent study suggests that this works both ways, too: Acting like a nice person can actually make other people rate your face as more attractive.

With new dating sites and find-your-match algorithms coming out seemingly every week, it's interesting to note that recent studies suggest there isn't much to support these tools' claims of accuracy. In one article, published a few years ago in Psychological Science, the authors argue that the online dating boom has definitely increased the accessibility of potential partners. But, it does so in quick snapshots that don't give us enough info to accurately make decisions about people. And, the algorithms tend to match people up with similar interests and individual characteristics, which aren't always the best predictors of actual compatibility.

There's some research indicating that your level of neuroticism could be an important player in relationship success, but whatever your personality, other factors will probably matter more in the long run. For instance, one of the best predictors of intimacy is referred to as the "quality of interaction," which includes the amount of time spent communicating and how satisfying both participants found the interaction. Unfortunately, this is one of those things it just takes time to cultivate and figure out — no dating-site shortcuts here.

Of course, there's also little ol' oxytocin, the neurotransmitter that's been linked to feelings of attachment — especially during and right after sex. However, oxytocin's penchant for helping us bond with others applies to a wide range of scenarios, even including the induction of labor contractions. While it might be the "cuddle chemical" or the "love hormone," it's also a lot of other things. There are additional key players needed to create something as complicated as love: heavy hitters such as dopamine and serotonin. So, yes, brain chemicals play a role in the formation of relationships, but there are many of them, and they're involved in many complex ways.
Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Great, now what?

You've passed the hurdles and made it into a relationship of whatever kind you desire. Excellent. The way attraction works, though (how you and your partner are attracted to each other and how you're both attracted to other people) can obviously change once you're in a relationship.

In one recent study, participants were asked about whether or not they thought their partner was tempted by other people, and how they reacted to that suspicion. It turned out that those who thought their partners were tempted actually stepped up their own "mate-guarding" game, meaning they tried to limit their partners' interactions with other potentially attractive people. Despite sounding kind of creepy, mate-guarding actually increased both partners' commitment levels in the short-term.

There's a whole lot out there about what makes people actually go through with infidelity, mate-guarding be damned. For instance, those who have cheated in the past are more likely to do it again in the future, and research suggests that people who end up being "stolen" from a former relationship via cheating aren't as satisfied with their new partners. Just because you may be attracted to someone enough to leave your current partner, that doesn't meant the attraction will lead you down a happy path.

So, how do you know if your one is the one? A surprising clue is simply how well you and your partner remember the course of your relationship, including the progression of your intimacy with and attraction to each other. No matter how far apart you get physically, that satisfaction is easier to maintain when you savor the good times and take the time to pay attention to your relationship.

Of course, at some point, there's no explaining what really makes us attracted to each other. Whatever it is, we're just happy the magic happens.
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