The Role of Physical Attraction

August 30, 2019
The role of physical attraction is a relatively widely-studied concept. It's something we experience every day. Read on to learn more!

There are many theories on the role of physical attraction in love and relationships. Many of them focus on the beginnings of a relationship. It’s also a widely studied concept in the psychology of social cognition, where experts have done countless studies and research projects.

It’s also worth mentioning that we’re working with a narrow definition of attraction. In some cases, like with friendships, it can go hand-in-hand with affinity, but that’s not what we’re focusing on. Although it might sound hard to believe, it’s also possible to be in a relationship where you aren’t attracted to other people.

Researchers such as Surra and Milardo (1988) establish two types of human relationships. First, there are interactive networks, where we interact in order to achieve our own objectives. Then there are psychological networks, where we feel close to, and important to, other people. In this kind of relationship, our bonds go beyond simply achieving goals.

Attraction pretty clearly falls into the category of psychological networks. Seen in that light, attraction is a natural disposition to begin a relationship with someone, interact with them, and positively react to their actions and suggestions.

A couple sitting together in a field, looking into each other's eyes.

Feingold and dating ads

Other researchers such as Feingold (1990) decided to study the role of physical attraction when it came to starting a relationship. He had five methodological tools for his research: 

  • Scaled questionnaires. Subjects had to rate various attributes they considered important in a potential partner. One of the attributes on the questionnaire was physical attraction.
  • A study of correlations between physical attraction and popularity. 
  • Blind dates, where they controlled the levels of physical attraction and the interactions they went on to have.
  • False physical descriptions of future coworkers to measure the positive or negative inclinations the subjects then had of them. 
  • An analysis of the content of dating ads in newspapers.

His goal was to see if beauty played a part in our evaluations of other peopleThe answer was yes. He found that men valued physical attractiveness more than women did. But wait, it’s more complicated than that! He also discovered that the difference was greater only in their subjective responses and not in their behavior.

What this means is that there seems to have been differences between what the subjects said they were looking for in a partner and who they actually ended up being interested in. However, this may have been influenced by social desirability and the stereotypes surrounding physical attractiveness in our society.

Romantic and platonic encounters

In the same study, Feingold also discovered that more attractive women had more romantic dates. Attractive men, on the other hand, had a higher level of platonic popularity. In other words, they had more female friends.

What this might suggest is that, with romantic interactions, physical attractiveness is more important to men. Meanwhile, when it comes to friendships, a person’s beauty is more important to women.

Physical attraction, money, and generosity

Another study by Hamermesh and Biddle (1998) shows that there’s a relationship between money and material things and physical attraction. Basically, people who were less physically attractive earned less money than people who rated higher in physical appearance, regardless of sex, gender, or occupation.

Eagly (1991) researched the importance of physical appearance within the framework of psychological constructs such as social competence, intelligence, integrity, and altruism. 

She found a direct relationship between attractiveness and social competence (which may have had to do with these people having an easier time beginning relationships or being accepted).

She also found a relatively strong relationship between intellectual competence and attractiveness. Lastly, she found no significant relationship between generosity, integrity, and attractiveness.

Sociobiology may have the answer

People have also studied the influence of appearance in attraction and partner selection. They found interesting things related to the investment of both men and women in reproduction.

A desire for your genes to make it to the following generations is the foundation of attraction to one person or another. That attraction stems from things beyond physical appearance.

  • According to theories of evolution, an attraction to a woman is related to signs of reproductive health. This is strongly related to youth and beauty.
  • As far as attraction to men, the most important trait is being able to defend their children. In other words: dominance.

Sociobiology and prototypes of universal beauty

Our prototypes of universal beauty seem to back up the psychobiological theory that we associate female beauty with youth and maternity. Some of the things that would communicate that are large eyes and mouth, a small nose, large breasts, and wide hips. For men, it’s a wide jaw and strength.

But as we mentioned earlier, and especially in the case of men, the traits aren’t just physical in terms of sociobiological attraction. A study conducted by Jensen Campbell showed that the biggest facet of attraction for people interested in men weren’t those who were most physically dominant, but those who helped other people.

The parasite theory and the role of mass media

Gangestad and Buss (1993) put forth the parasite theory. They studied the role of physical attraction in 29 different cultures. They found that in places where more people contract pathogenic parasites, physical attractiveness was much more important.

That would be the case because people were associating physical attractiveness with a strong immune system and a resistance to disease.

Going in another direction, Feingold said that mass media may play a huge role in terms of what we find attractive. He argued that myths such as “What’s beautiful is good” have stuck because they’re so common in movies and TV. Think about it: attractive, good-hearted, strong heroes with all the things you could ever want in a partner.

Our tendency to generalize things could have led us to apply that correlation between attractiveness and good character to all kinds of other contexts. This makes many of us victims of a fundamental attribution error where we assume attractive people are more successful, without having anything to back that up.

We think that there must be a link between physical attractiveness and good personality traits. But the truth is that those things definitely have more unstable, external causes.

A man kissing his partner on the forehead.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

Thus, we assume attractive people are competent and good, and we act based on that assumption. You meet someone competent, or good, and want to maintain a balance with reciprocity: to be good enough for a successful person.

But giving all that to someone could cause a reaction in them, and they’ll be predisposed to act in the same way. This is what’s known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you interact with someone you consider unsuccessful, unintelligent, and generally unworthy, you’ll have a very different predisposition towards them. Your predispositions also go on to shape the other person’s reaction. If you go in with strongly negative expectations, you’re making it more likely that you’ll prove yourself right.

In conclusion, it seems that physical attraction plays a major role when it comes to developing relationships. However, it’s obviously not the only important factor. Researchers have also studies other things such as how similar we are to the other person or how familiar they feel.