Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hot or Not: A Social-Psychological Inquiry into Interpersonal Attraction and Attractiveness Perception.

Question- Why are some people attractive? Discuss in relation to social psychological theories and research
A multitude of variables influence the perception of attractiveness in romantic and sexual relationships. Propinquity, similarity, personality and affect, reciprocity, reinforcement and physical attractiveness have been discussed as influencing factors of interpersonal attraction. Further, this blog asserts that attraction is influenced by cultural and societal context, by history, time and generational influences and by innate evolutionary drives. An integrational model is proposed, whereby the author theorises that interpersonal attraction depends on many interacting models, theories and research reports. Concept maps, examples and numerous models complete the analysis.

Attractiveness and interpersonal attraction are defined as the allure, magnetism or liking between two or more people (Breckler, Olsen, & Wiggins, 2006). This blog will analyse why some people are considered attractive, specifically within a romantic and sexual context. It will discuss the concepts of propinquity, similarity and the interaction between personality/affect and attraction. Next, reciprocity, reinforcement and physical attractiveness will be assessed. Factors influencing the perception of attractiveness will be analysed including: cross cultural, trans-generational and evolutionary variables. Finally, this blog will propose an ‘Integrational Model’ of attractiveness, theorising that many interacting theories and research findings can provide a comprehensive explanation of why some people are considered attractive.


Propinquity is a potent catalyst of attraction. It is defined the nearness or proximity in physical or psychological space which creates the opportunity to meet another person (Vaughan & Hogg, 2005). Propinquity facilitates initial relationships and attraction creating familiarity and repeated exposure (Breckler et al., 2006).

Proximity Theory.
Close proximity to another includes a small functional distance and opportunity for continued interaction, which can significantly increase the likelihood of attraction (Sprecher, 1998). Housing research by Festinger, Schacter and Back (1950) found that people rated attraction, magnetism and friendship highest with those living on the same residential floor; rather than those living on other floors or distant buildings (Appendix A); this research evidence the potent effects of proximity on interpersonal attraction.

The Mere Exposure Effect.
The mere exposure effect is a theory explaining the tendency for people to come to like things simply because they see or encounter them repeatedly (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). Research highlights that repeated exposure to an individual increases attraction and favourabilty. One study by Saegert, Swap, and Zajonk (1973) determined that mere exposure in both positive and negative contexts increased interpersonal attraction. Saegert et al. found that an increased frequency of stimuli enhanced liking and interpersonal attraction. Repeated exposure to another increases the perception of attractiveness (Vaughan & Hogg, 2005).

Similarity of attitudes, values, personality or physical attractiveness is one of the most important determinants of attraction (Sprecher, 1998).

Attitude Similarity Effect.
The attitude-similarity effect is the idea that people find others more attractive and likable the more similar they are in attitudes, beliefs and preferences; including opinions and cognitions about current events, social and political issues, religion, morality, music, literature and similar personalities (Breckler et al., 2006). Research by Lehr and Geher (2006) found that participants presented with potential mates with similar attitudes, judged them as more likable and attractive than dissimilar mates (Lehr & Geher). The attitude similarity effect is prime example of similarity and attractiveness.

Matching Hypothesis.
People who are evenly matched in physical appearance, social background, personality, socioeconomic status, interests and leisure activities are significantly more likely to be considered attractive by their similar counterpart (Joiner, 1994). Matching hypothesis specifically elucidates that people are attracted to others who are similar in physical attractiveness (Kalick & Hamilton III, 1986) (Appendix-B).

Similarity is important in attraction because it produces cognitive consistency, reinforcement through positive outcomes, reinforcement through attitude validation and the high probability of reciprocity because of the perceived similarities (Michener & DeLamater, 1999). Correspondingly, personality and affect are also important determinants of attraction.

Personality & Affect.
Numerous theories and research studies suggest that personality and affect are the most important determinants attraction (Sprecher, 1998). As the attitude similarity effect suggests, similar or complementary personalities are most attractive (Klohnen & Lou, 2003). Research by Sprecher displayed that a desirable personality and friendly, warm and kind disposition were the most important determinants of attraction.

Affect, a person’s emotional state, is a further psychosocial variable of attractiveness perception. Related to personality, a positive affect and cheerful disposition have a direct effect on interpersonal attraction (Byrne, 1997). Byrne and Clore’s (1970) Affect-Attraction model highlights the relationship between positive and negative affect and interpersonal attraction (Appendix-C). Humor is a further powerful predictor of attraction, helping to strengthen social bonds and increase liking (Johnson, 2003). The Laughter-Attraction model highlights the relationship between humor and attractiveness (Fraley & Aron, 2004) (Appendix-D).


Reciprocity Theory.
The reciprocity principle is the tendency in people to become more attracted to those whom they believe are attracted to them (Lehr & Geher, 2006); we like those who like us and dislike those who dislike us (Vaughan & Hogg, 2005).
Reciprocation of liking has a powerful effect on attraction in romantic relationships and friendships; and is an important factor in finding a mate attractive (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008).
A classic study by Dittes and Kelley (1956) researched student’s attraction levels when given written evaluations that were either positive or negative; results showed that students who believed they were liked were more attracted to the evaluator than those who believed they were disliked (Dittes & Kelley). Reciprocity is also influenced by the Gain-Loss Hypothesis (Appendix-E). Reciprocity is an important psychosocial factor in the perception of attractiveness. A further factor is reinforcement.

Reinforcement theory asserts that people tend to be attracted to those who reward or praise them; or are present when one receives rewards (Michener & DeLamater, 1999).

Reinforcement Affect Model.
Reinforcement affect model is a model of attraction which postulates that we like people who are around when we experience a positive feeling. Byrne and Clore’s (1970) reinforcement affect model (Appendix-F) draws on classical conditioning, with paired positive stimuli and responses increasing and reinforcing liking and attraction.

Social Exchange Theory.
An extension of the reinforcement model is the social exchange theory, which analyses the costs and benefits of interacting with another, especially within a sexual attraction realm (South, 1991). Research has highlighted that such reinforcement rewards include sex, money, attention, respect, praise, love and enjoyment (Sprecher, 1998). Reinforcement is a strong predictor of attraction as it is pleasing to receive praise, rewards and positive feedback (Sprecher).

Physical Attractiveness.
Physical attractiveness is the combination of tangible characteristics that are evaluated as beautiful or handsome (Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe, 2006). Good looks have been found to outweigh many other factors of attraction (Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, & Rottman, 1966). Physical attractiveness is a far more crucial attractiveness variable for women than men; as it denotes youth, fertility and health (Walster at al.). Physical attractiveness includes facial and bodily features.

Facial Features.
The structure of the face, facialmetrics, involves the measurement of a large number of facial features to determine the proportions and measurements of an attractive face. Research by Cunningham, Barbee, and Pike (1990) found that men prefer women with large eyes, a small nose and chin, prominent cheekbones, high eyebrows, large pupils and a large smile. Research has also shown that women with pout lips and an even skin tone are considered more attractive (Barber, 1998). Cunningham et al. found that females preferred men with prominent cheekbones, a large chin, a wide smile and eyes that did not deviate from the average (Appendix-G).

Averageness theory holds that people who look different from the norm are generally regarded as less attractive (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008) (Appendix-H). Langlois and Roggman (1990) assert that evolutionary pressures and natural selection generally favour average rather than extreme population features; and the influence of prototypes and cognitive schemas bias people toward average, prototypical faces. Facial averageness is influenced by biological, cognitive, and mere exposure psychosocial factors in the perception of attractiveness (Langlois & Roggman).

Facial symmetry is the equilibrium or mirrored proportion of the human face, which is a strong determinant of physical attractiveness (Mealey, Bridgstock, & Townsend, 1999). Facial symmetry has been found to be important in conveying information about gender, sexual maturity, immune quality and genotypic quality (Mealey et al.). Computer-generated symmetry research conducted by Grammer and Thornhill (1994) found significant positive effects for facial symmetry and attractiveness in both males and females. (Appendix-I).

Bodily Features.
Male and female body shape and weight are asserted as important in the judgement of why some people are considered attractive.
Body shape is an important component of physical attractiveness and sex appeal. Typically, men prefer the classic hourglass figure in a women (waist hip ratio of .70) as it signifies youthfulness, good health and fertility (Singh, 1993). The typically desired body shape for men is the ‘triangle’ consisting of a waist hip ratio of 1.0 and larger shoulders (Singh) (Appendix-J). The judgement of attractiveness and weight is, however, largely determined by cultural context, time period and innate factors.

Factors Influencing Attraction.
Attraction, specifically physical attraction, is significantly influenced by the context of culture, time period and innate evolutionary factors. Research on female physical attractiveness was conducted by Swami, Caprario, Tovee, and Furnham (2006), which found that Japanese men preferred images of women with significantly lower Body-Mass-Indexes and were significantly more reliant on body shape than British participants. Additionally, research on male physical attractiveness across British and Greek participants asserts that Greek women show a significantly greater preference for a low waist-to-chest ratio and a smaller overall body weight than did British women (Swami et al. 2007). Cross cultural variances in attraction are explained through historical, societal, gender-role and socioeconomic contexts. The perception of why people are attractive is a complex and uncertain concept that is influenced by culture and time (Carr, 2003).

Attractiveness perception of females has also evolved through generations (Barber, 1998). Appendix-K provides a trans-generational analysis of attractiveness. The perception of attractiveness is also influenced by innate biological and evolutionary drives. Men are attracted to women who have biological markers of fertility, health, youth, high estrogen levels and good child bearing ability. Women are attracted to men who show signs of power, virility, aggression and wealth to supply resources (Gangestad & Scheyd, 2005).

Integrational Model.
A multitude of factors determine why some people are considered attractive. This blog hypothesises an ‘integrational model’ illustrating propinquity, similarity, personality and affect, reciprocity, reinforcement and physical attractiveness are important psychosocial variables in the perception of attractiveness. Integrational model suggests that attraction relies on the combination and interaction of psychosocial variables and asserts that these variables are influenced by factors such as culture, time and innate evolutionary drives (Appendix-L).

In conclusion, many psychosocial variables determine the perception of interpersonal attraction (Concept Map-A) yet due to space restrictions, I have included what I believe are the most formative and integral components in attraction including: propinquity, similarity, personality and affect, reciprocity, reinforcement, physical attractiveness and factors influencing attractiveness perception (Concept Map-B). This blog has highlighted and discussed these variables through analysis of theories, models and research evidence. Interpersonal attraction and the perception of attractiveness is a complex construct, with myriad psychosocial determinants.

1547 words excluding references, headings, citations and appendices.
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