We're sitting at the airport chowing down on a food court meal at our gate when my friend audibly gasps. "Oh my god, is it just me or is that guy actually so hot?". I turn around in anticipation of discovering a dazzling specimen of a man sitting behind us — but instead, I'm locking eyes with a certainly not unattractive, but fairly average-looking dude (who doesn't match the well-established type that makes up my friend's dating record at all).
I'm genuinely confused for a moment, until I realise that this guy is the only other person around our age waiting for the flight. "Um, are you sure he's hot, or is he just the only plausible romantic or sexual option in this vicinity?" I ask her — because nothing can make a person go from a 6 to a 10 like proximity and scarcity. If you've ever wondered why your airport, office or gym crushes are that much more intense, this is probably why.
It's a phenomenon that many of us have experienced — you only need to take to your social media feeds to find the hundreds of other people who face this dilemma. Are they hot, or are they just the most attractive out of all my colleagues? Are they hot, or are they just the only man reading a book at my local cafe? Are they hot, or are they just the only person my age in the supermarket right now?
Ally, 30, knows exactly what I'm talking about. "There was the guy from my education degree that all the girls thought was an absolute BABE until we realised he was just the only guy in our course and was, like, incredibly religiously conservative (instant ick)," she muses. "I've also had the classic travel crush when I stayed in a mixed-dorm with a 6-foot-something Adonis who also happened to like Leonard Cohen, so I was therefore convinced it was some sort of divine love intervention...until I realised he was as dull as a brick. Basically, if they're the only person near me reading in public or wearing a band tee, I'll create a fictional reality in my head that we're meant to be. Until, you know, I actually speak to them."
It seems like in any given situation, we're hardwired to try and pick out the most suitable mate, and we're able to cultivate an attraction to people when they're close by, even if we wouldn't think twice about them in any other context. If you think about it that way, it's so primal it's almost embarrassing — is this really just some weird survival technique we've adopted, almost like we're picking out the best immediate option just in case we suddenly have to repopulate the Earth in the next 30 minutes? Either way, it's certainly true that the principles of scarcity and proximity are very real and have a profound impact on our lives.
Scarcity in particular makes things more desirable, and this isn't just true of romantic relationships, as sexologist Georgia Grace explains. "The same can be said of things that sell out really quickly, or that you can only get in certain countries," Georgia tells Refinery29 Australia. "Things that are harder to get our hands on suddenly become of higher valuer, and therefore we desire them more. So it's understandable that when you're in a space where you typically wouldn't find the exact type of person you would be attracted to, you'll be more attracted to someone who comes along who only ticks a few of your most basic boxes such as age or gender, given the circumstance."
Or, if you're inclined to think more romantically, perhaps this kind of attraction is a deep-rooted desire to feel intimacy and romantic excitement in unique places. And if this is the case, we probably have the traditional "meet-cute" scripts we've been consuming for decades to blame. While we know it's easy enough to hop on a dating app to curate our algorithm to find the most optimal matches, meeting people in cute, real-world settings is still the romantic ideal, yet these are much harder to come by. So in order to have the adorable story about serendipitously bumping into someone in a public place, perhaps we're willing to make a sacrifice.
"Take the airport for example," Grace explains. "Finding someone you're attracted to at the airport is a very romantic idea. Locating the one person who suits you best amongst everyone else, amongst the mayhem of being on a plane, can be very exciting. There's more risk involved in this kind of setting, and you're also probably travelling to a new place, so there's all this extra novelty and sense of desire. It's a prime example of how context can make someone so much more attractive than you would usually find them."
So if we're theoretically able to find anyone attractive as long as they're vaguely suitable, what does that say about having a "type"? Is it actually helpful to have a specific set of qualities to look for in a partner to help narrow our choices? According to Grace, it depends. "There are certainly pros and cons to having a type," she explains. "For some, it can be really helpful to know what kinds of people they're attracted to and to understand what qualities are most important to them. On the other side, it can be easy to get hyper-fixated on a very specific type of person, which can be negative for a variety of reasons."
In this case, Grace says it might be helpful to branch out and think about different things you find attractive in a person, ranging from looks to personality, to help you be more open to a wider range of potential partners. At the same time, you'll need to reflect on your broader values and what you want out of a relationship to help you find a truly suitable partner. We also need to be wary of playing romantic or sexual "games" when it comes to attraction and seeking out new people. While it can be fun in the initial phase, we should consider not focusing too much on the novelty or the chase, and not letting it run our relationships. It shouldn't come as a surprise to any of us that attraction alone doesn't make for a perfect or even suitable pairing.
At the end of the day, it's probably best to think twice before we go running up to a stranger to profess our love to them. There's nothing like enjoying the thrill of a crush and dwelling in our strange little fantasies before happily landing back into reality. Perhaps the best thing about your airport crush who's driving you to unbearable distraction is that once the plane lands, you'll probably never see or think of them ever again.