Have You Ever Wondered Why You
Have you ever wondered why you fall for certain people? Out of all seven billion people on our planet, one singular person manages to catch your eye. This may even lead that person to start liking you back, and maybe you both start dating, and maybe someday even get married. What causes one boy to be Mr. Right, and one boy to be Mr. Oh So Wrong? We typically all look for the same things in relationships: someone sweet, funny, loyal, attractive–shouldn’t we all fall for the same people? What differentiates our susceptibility to fall for certain people? Although the consensus isn’t completely unanimous of how human attraction fully works, psychologists have tried to figure out different theories of what can cause us to go googly-eyes for some, but not for others. These theories can range from sharing similarities with the person we fall for, to sharing differences (“opposites attract”), to the person we like looking like us, etc. Although we may never know what theory is a concrete answer, the psychology of attraction falls into two categories: physical attraction and interpersonal attraction.
Physical attraction, under a psychology standpoint, is easier to study than interpersonal attraction. Usually, when given two options, people can often choose which option is more attractive instantly. Our brains are able to look at two distinct faces, and almost immediately decide which one is considered more beautiful than the other. Attractiveness is one of the main traits people look for in mates, but what constitutes as attractive? According to Dr. Stephen Dayan, a Chicago plastic surgeon, our views on what we see as “beautiful”, translate back “to the deepest, darkest, and most primitive corridors of the subconscious mind.” According to Dayan’s studies, a lot of what we look for in a potential partner is related to evolutionary instincts that have evolved through the last 3.5 million years, even though the social, political, and conventional climate of today is completely different. Beauty, Dayan writes, is the universal form of communication that says “I am healthy and have good genes”. This can be related to other species as well, such as peacock’s feathers or a flower with brighter petals. Although these instincts seem shallow, primal instincts help reflect certain fertility boosting characteristics–such as symmetry (how closely the sides of their face/body match), youthfulness, waist-to-hip ratio, long hair, and odor in women. In men, large chests, jutting jaws and a powerful profile are seen as a sign of good health and wellness (Dayan). Attractiveness is so pertinent to our culture that it can affect how we view those around us. In fact, the top 25 companies in the Fortune 1000 can be related to masculine facial features. Even military rank can be related to facial structure. But, do not be confused, beauty does not equate attraction. Attractiveness can range from hair to smell to posture–”attractiveness is a composite”. The “sexiest” person in the room is usually seen as the one who projects the most self-confidence and happiness, rather than the one who is the most attracted. It is through an ability to improve self esteem that an individual can alter appearances to create a better first impression. In one study done at the University of Oregon, the study supports the notion that if a woman thinks she’s beautiful, she will make seventy percent more money than is she is objectively considered beautiful by other’s standards (Dayan).
Not only can physical appearance have a huge effect on whom we choose as a future lover, but other physical characteristics, such as a person’s voice, can impact our attraction. According to a certain studies, you can be attracted to a person without knowing what they look like, but have heard their voice before. “In fact, if you only hear someone’s voice, the effects of vocal attractiveness will be more pronounced than if you meet in person and experience both vocal and visual information simultaneously” (McDowell and Jones). Another factor that can play into attraction levels is how well your genetics match with someone. Certain studies have shown that the higher you match with someone in DNA sequences, the more attracted you may be. This may explain theories such as “You fall in love with your father”, referencing falling in love with someone who looks like your father and shares his tendencies, though this theory has been applied to include whichever parent is the opposite sex. This could be in part to the genetics that family members share. According to research reported in the July 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, this theory was proven to be true. In one specific study, scientists gave the participants two photos: a picture of someone who was a stranger to the participant (meaning a random face), and a picture of that same stranger morphed with a photo of the participant’s parents. The subjects were then told to say which picture was more attractive to them. Subjects were more likely to assign higher rates to the person in the picture morphed with their parent. This tells how we see those who share similar genetics to us as more attractive than an average person. A similar study was done with pictures merged with pictures of themselves and similar results were presented, though we are much more likely to fall for someone who looks like our opposite sex parent. This research concluded that we see those who look similar to us, or have the same traits as us, as more attractive than a person who does not share those traits. This challenges the “Opposites attract” Theory, in that usually if you are looking for a person who shares your genetic code, they will, in result, look like you as well. This study can actually be backed up by research done in Iceland, which found that “…marriages between third and fourth cousins and Iceland tended to produce more children and grandchildren than those between completely unrelated individuals.” The researchers suggest that marrying third and fourth cousins may be “optimal for reproduction” because this “degree of similarity may produce the best gene pool” (Brogaard).
Within the same vein, we may be attracted to people who look like our parents due to a theory called “imprinting”. Similarly to how baby ducks follow the first thing that touches them after birth, many psychologists think that humans also imprint on their parents, and that this imprinting affects the type of person we find most attractive later in life. Research has shown that heterosexual men and women have a “type” when it comes to hair and eye color, and that the “type” typically shares the same characteristics as their opposite sex parent. It has also been researched that women that have an older father grow up to prefer older men themselves. In further analysis, women who had a positive experience with their fathers tend to express a preference for males that are similar to their fathers. This relates back to the imprinting theory. This theory is harder to find in homosexuals, however. This may be related to the fact that gay men and lesbians tend to report lower quality relationships with their parents. It is plausible that for the imprinting-like effect to fully take effect it is necessary that parents and children have a good relationship (Burriss).
There are so many factors and theories that could possibly explain why we are physically attracted to certain people. But of course, attraction isn’t all physical. Attraction that is mental, or interpersonal attraction, is more difficult to study. In order to account for this, there are many different theories that have been formed to explain how interpersonal attraction is formed. In her book entitled “The Anatomy of Love”, by Helen Fisher, PhD, Fisher explores “the history of mating, marriage, adultery and divorce”. Her research categorizes people in relationships in four categories: explorers, builders, directors, and negotiators. Explorers have traits that are spontaneous and adventurous, more likely to take “risks” within the relationship. Explorers possess qualities that Fisher links with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter linked with the brain’s reward and pleasure system. This may conclude that when “explorers” take risks or go on adventures within their relationships, these experiences may trigger the brain to release dopamine, giving that person an emotional high. “Builders” have traits that are loving and caring, which are linked with serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known as “the happy chemical”, which plays a major role in well-being, appetite, memory, and sleep. “Directors” have intelligent and decisive traits, linked with testosterone. This does not mean, however, that only men can be directors. These traits are not considered gender-specific, just whomever in the relationship possesses the traits within the given category. Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone and a steroid, typically associated with aggression and assertiveness. Lastly, “Negotiators” have sensitive and compassionate traits, linked with estrogen and oxytocin. Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone, associated with being emotional and sensitive. Oxytocin, on the other hand, is a neurotransmitter linked with childbirth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin typically is referred to as a “love hormone”, due to the fact that it influences social behavior, emotion, and sociability. According to Fisher, we tend to be attracted to people within our own groups. Then Fisher continues to further her category theory, describing each category as becoming a “junkie”. Explorers are most likely to become romance junkies, which seek novelty, thrills, and adventures. Builders become attachment junkies, who sacrifice their own needs for the needs of their partner. Directors become violence junkies, who take action and are less skilled in expressing themselves. This may be due to the fact that directors are associated with testosterone, which can cause increased aggression. And finally, negotiators become despair junkies during relationships, who obsessively think about rejection.
Furthermore, Fisher says that the drive to love is a basic human drive but also, a natural addiction associated with the reward system in the brain. When rejected/heartbroken, humans can experience symptoms associated with withdrawal, such as denial, protest, despair. There are also three brain systems equipped with mating: Lust, associated with testosterone, and romantic love, associated with dopamine, norepinephrine, low serotonin. These brain systems are not always well connected (Big Picture). According to Judith Orloff, M.D., “pure lust is based solely on physical attraction and fantasy and often dissipates when the ‘real person’ surfaces.” Psychology Today reports that lust activates dopamine, which is the brain’s reward system. Love, on the other hand, is able to trigger parts of the brain associated with caring and empathy (Martin). Although love and lust trigger different parts of the brain, they can feel almost identical. This becomes confusing on whether you are attracted to that person for who they are, or what they do for you. If we are only attracted to those on a physical level, it can convince us that we know them on an interpersonal level, due to these feelings being so similar.
A theory which connects love and lust is Elaine Hatfield and colleagues’ theory of Passionate vs. Compassionate Love. Passionate love, Hatfield describes, is a transitory period of love between six and thirty months of the relationship. Passionate love is defined by intense emotions, anxiety, eroticism, and affection. Hatfield suggests that passionate love is caused by society’s expectations of love turn into preconceived notions of how we should conduct ourselves in relationships. When we see others falling in love and being happy, it causes ourselves to be stressed about our own love lives and happiness. Although we may convince ourselves that our own relationships are satisfactory, it may just be the stress of society’s expectations on us to find love. Hatfield suggests that passionate love can also arise when the person we like meets the preconceived ideas we have of love. Hopefully, passionate love can lead to compassionate love, which is characterized by deep empathy, mutual respect, and trust—“Compassionate love usually develops out of feelings of mutual understanding and shared respect for one another.” Most people desire a combination of the two different kinds of love—a relationship with deep compassion and respect yet also keeping alive a flame of passion and desire, but Hatfield’s theory suggests that the two kinds of love are separate, and intermingling of the two are exceedingly rare (Cherry).
Although attraction is a complex concept affected by many factors, it still remains highly individualized. Whatever the reasons for choosing may be, everybody has their individual path to finding whoever their right person is. Maybe included in their path is another person. Though physical attraction isn’t always the strongest connection without interpersonal relations to back it up, it is still a viable option according to psychological studies. When people fall in love, chemicals and neurotransmitters simply take over. Love is hardly easy to explain, therefore, it can not be easily studied. Perhaps, love is a conglomeration of things. Maybe it is being struck with that magic wand and falling head over heels. Maybe there is no logic involved with it at all. There is no certain way or pattern to succeed in love, neither is there a sure way to know what success in love even is. If there is anything that psychology can tell us, it is that love is so much more than the sum of its parts.