Philosophical, empirical, and popular inquiries into what causes people to be attracted to one another are as old as humanity. As early as the fourth century bc Aristotle examined the forces of interpersonal attraction. Research on interpersonal attraction surged in the 1960s with two seminal publications (Berscheid & Walster 1969; Byrne 1971). Interpersonal attraction was conceptualized initially as a relatively stable attitude that leads to positive sentiments for another person and that serves as the catalyst for initiating interpersonal interaction. It is now viewed as a dynamic, affective force that draws people together and permeates all stages of interpersonal relationships. McCroskey & McCain (1974) identified three types of interpersonal attraction. Task attraction refers to our desire to work with someone, whereas physical attraction occurs when we are drawn to a person’s physical appearance. Social attraction reflects our desire to develop a friendship with that person. Other types of attraction include sexual attraction, which reflects the desire to engage in sexual activity; relational attraction, which refers to the desire to have an intimate relationship with that person; and fatal attraction, which occurs when the very qualities that initially drew us to a person eventually contribute to relational deterioration.
Determinants Of Interpersonal Attraction
Judgments of physical attractiveness, particularly facial attractiveness, are one of the top predictors of interpersonal attraction. Apart from culturally idiosyncratic beauty norms, evolutionary researchers have detected several universal physical attractiveness features. Whereas body and facial symmetry are viewed as universally attractive in men and women, a strong jaw line, broad shoulders, and a waist-to-hip ratio of slightly less than 1.00 contribute to judgments of male physical attractiveness. A soft jaw line, full lips, and an hourglass figure are preferred female attractiveness features. These physical features are attractive presumably because they indicate fertility, health, and consequently genetic fitness.
Although men tend to view physical attractiveness as more important than women, both sexes are biased toward beauty and tend to perceive physically attractive people as more rewarding than physically unattractive people. There are several reasons for this beauty bias. The first is aesthetic appeal; beautiful people provide sheer viewing pleasure. A second reason for the beauty bias is that people tend to overgeneralize from beauty and assume that it is associated with positive personality characteristics and social skills. This bias is dubbed the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype or the “halo effect,” and is based on implicit personality theory. Not surprisingly, studies testing the veracity of this halo effect found that physically attractive people are not blessed with more virtuous personality characteristics than are less attractive people. However, attractive people might actually be more socially skilled than unattractive people, because attractive people receive more attention and thus more opportunities to hone their skills. A final source for the beauty bias is the assumption that the mere association with a beautiful person will elevate one’s own physical attractiveness and social status. This “rub-off effect” is partially supported, e.g., men are viewed as more attractive in the presence of beautiful women, whereas the same does not hold for women in the presence of attractive men.
A second factor that influences interpersonal attraction is similarity. As early as 1870 Sir Francis Galton postulated that spouses tend to be similar on a range of attitudes and socio-cultural characteristics, a principle he dubbed homogamy. Byrne’s (1971) reinforcement affect model explains this phenomenon and suggests that similar others are attractive because they serve as universal reinforcers of our worldview. With respect to similarities in levels of physical attractiveness in particular, Berscheid et al. (1971) speak of the matching hypothesis: people are attracted to others who match them in physical attractiveness. At first blush, the matching hypothesis seems to contradict the beauty bias, but the difference lies in what people ideally desire and what they can realistically attain: while we are attracted to beautiful people, in the end, we tend to seek out those who match us in physical attractiveness because these people are realistically attainable.
The association between attitude similarity and attraction has perhaps generated the fiercest debate among scholars. Byrne (1971) developed the “bogus stranger” experimental paradigm to test whether attitude similarity leads to attraction. In that experimental set-up participants first assessed their own attitudes. They were then presented with an attitude set of a bogus stranger and were asked to evaluate the extent to which they were attracted to that stranger. Byrne found that participants tended to be attracted to those who possessed similar attitudes. However, Sunnafrank & Miller noted that this design completely eliminates social interaction (see Sunnafrank 1991). In a modification of the bogus-stranger design, these researchers asked participants who varied in attitude similarity to talk with one another in a five-minute conversation prior to their attraction evaluations. Interestingly, the association between attitude similarity and attraction disappeared once people began to talk with one another. These findings have by no means resolved whether “birds of a feather flock together” or whether “opposites attract.” Consistent with relational dialectical theory, some scholars point to the importance of difference and novelty as sustaining features in close relationships.
Several communication qualities seem also to play a crucial role in interpersonal attraction; among them are warmth, sociability, and competent communication. Warmth is communicated verbally through a positive attitude and concern for others, and nonverbally through smiling and direct eye contact. Sociability and competence are communicated through expressive behaviors, behavioral relaxation, and conversational dexterity. Aside from these positive qualities, there are several “darker” communication characteristics that influence interpersonal attraction, among them dominance, expressed as relaxed posture, showing a lack of interest, and talking loudly, quickly, and clearly. Women particularly seem to be drawn to men who show a certain degree of assertiveness and dominance, presumably because these men display strength and potentially genetic fitness.
Proximity and familiarity are two final predictors of attractiveness. Several studies found that people who live close to one another are more likely to become friends. The power of proximity is stimulated by familiarity; we feel comfortable and secure around people who are close and familiar, and who provide us with repeated opportunities for social interaction. Byrne (1971) actually speculated that the “mere exposure” to another person breeds attraction.
Integral to the vast majority of interpersonal attraction studies is the assumption that we find others attractive if we perceive them to be rewarding, an idea that has been drawn from social exchange theories. Berger and Calabrese’s Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) contends that it is not perceived reward value per se that causes attraction; rather it is the extent to which we are able to reduce our initial uncertainty about others that attracts us to others. People reduce uncertainty by gathering information that is initially superficial but becomes increasingly idiosyncratic and personal in nature in ongoing interactions. As the amount of verbal exchange increases, uncertainty tends to subsequently decrease and it is this decreased uncertainty that kindles interpersonal attraction. The need to reduce uncertainty might not always be the driving force of future interactions. Sunnafrank’s (1991) predicted outcome value theory (POV) proposes that the positive or negative information we receive, as well as the potential reward of future interactions (i.e., predicted outcome values), influence the extent to which we are attracted to others and subsequently increase or decrease communication.
The central tenet of all social exchange theories is that interpersonal attraction progresses in a linear fashion, but attraction levels might actually fluctuate over the course of a relationship. The relational turning-points model, itself grounded in relational dialectical theory captures this aspect and suggests that attraction evaluations rise and fall with positive and negative relational events people experience in interpersonal relationships.
A final theoretical approach that has been used to explain the causes and outcomes of attraction is social evolutionary theory (Buss 1994). The central idea of this theory is that humans, like all mammalian species, are driven to advance the species by mating with those who are most genetically fit. Genetic fitness is manifested in phenotypic features such as physical attractiveness and other personality characteristics. Consequently, people are drawn to those who possess advantageous phenotypic features because these features suggest strong genes and thus provide a survival advantage.
Measurements Of Interpersonal Attraction
Assessing interpersonal attraction is not as simple as it may seem. Several nonverbal indicators of interpersonal attraction have been explored (e.g., eye gaze, proximity, attention), but these measures tend to be contaminated by factors unrelated to attraction. Researchers have also frequently measured interpersonal attraction by summing two items taken from Byrne’s (1971) interpersonal judgment questionnaire, including the extent to which people (a) like a target person and (b) would enjoy working with that target person. A similar measure of interpersonal attraction is the simple question “How much do you like or dislike X?” that is usually answered on a semantic differential or bipolar scale.
However, this measure bears not only methodological problems common to single-item scales, but also does not take into account that positive and negative affect are relatively independent constructs. Thus, this measure cannot detect the ambivalence of the two emotional states when people evaluate the attraction of another person. McCroskey & McCain’s (1974) interpersonal attraction scale (IAS) is perhaps the most extensively developed scale in interpersonal communication and assesses social attraction, physical attraction, and task attraction (described above).
Future research will undoubtedly continue to reveal additional attraction motives, as well as moderating influences among these motives, in the context of initial and ongoing interpersonal relationships. Fundamentally, two key issues will likely drive future research in interpersonal attraction. The first issue is conceptual in nature: while we know quite a bit about the determinants of interpersonal attraction, we have yet to examine how exactly attraction works. It is tacitly assumed that attraction is an interpersonal dynamic. Thus, future theoretical work will likely build on interpersonal communication theory to expand the conceptual definition of interpersonal attraction beyond current definitions that target attraction predominantly as a force that draws people together. Apart from clear conceptualizations of interpersonal attraction, a second research direction concerns methodological issues in assessing interpersonal attraction. Because interpersonal attraction has frequently been examined in initial encounters, another fruitful avenue of future research lies in the longitudinal study of interpersonal attraction in ongoing relationships.
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