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Are You More Attractive When You're Nervous?

Research reveals how anxiety impacts interpersonal attraction.

Key points

  • Inadvertent expressions of interest may make people more interesting and attractive.
  • People use nervous reactions to assess whether someone is attracted to them.
  • Anxious individuals may appear nicer, more engaging, more interesting, and more conversational.
  • Displaying nervous reactions during initial attraction could predict other desirable personality traits.

If you've ever become nervous during a conversation with someone you like, you're not alone. Thankfully, according to research, you might actually be more attractive when you are anxious, rather than arrogant—self-conscious, rather than self-confident. For the majority of people, perhaps, this is good news.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
Source: Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

First Impression Butterflies

Many people suffer from first impression jitters when interacting with attractive relational options. They feel butterflies in their stomach and flushing in their face, among other semi-automatic responses in the moment. Yet as luck would have it, such inadvertent expressions of interest may actually make them appear more interesting—and attractive.

Susan M. Hughes et al. (2020) studied nervous behaviors displayed in response to interpersonal attraction and found that people use nervous reactions to assess whether someone is attracted to them. [i] They identified a number of potentially adaptive reasons why it is common to exhibit nervousness during an initial encounter with a potential paramour, and the ways in which such behaviors can be endearing.

We don't usually think of anxiety as appealing. But in the world of interpersonal attraction, think again.

As many of us know, as much as we try to hold it together, when we are nervous, our voices tend to give us away. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Hughes et al. note that attraction or romantic interest can be discerned through vocal tones, since many people may find it hard to mask anxiety in the throes of attraction. They found that women reported raising their vocal pitch, which may make them sound more attractive, illustrating how speech patterns under the stress of initial interaction can enhance first impressions and attraction.

Regarding content, Hughes et al. note that although someone who is nervous may use more flustered communication, when a person becomes anxious when first speaking to someone they find attractive, their semantic communication may in fact become more effective.

In addition, or perhaps in part because of alluring vocal tone and content, Hughes et al. note that anxious individuals appear nicer, more engaging, more interesting, and more conversational, all of which increase desirability. Accordingly, someone who displays nervous reactions during initial attraction could signal to a possible mate that he or she possesses other desirable personality traits conducive to long-term relationships and parenting potential.

In fact, while appearance undoubtedly matters to some extent, Hughes et al. note that nonverbal expressiveness can compensate for a lack of physical attractiveness by enhancing initial impressions, making people appear more attractive. And regarding other senses, they note that nervous sweating releases pheromones during an initial encounter with an attractive potential mate, which can serve as a chemical signal of attraction.

Recognizing Reciprocity

So nerves may cause people to look, sound, and smell more appealing. But when it comes to perceiving reciprocity, nervousness has some downsides. Hughes et al. found that the more nervous a person was in the company of someone they found highly attractive, the less they were able to discern attraction from the other person. They attribute this to cognitive interference experienced during anxiety and attraction, and note that one’s own feelings of attraction may create nervousness, and complicate the ability to perceive attraction from another.

The good news is that nervousness does not necessarily decrease attractiveness—if anything, it may even increase it. Even if you are too flustered to fathom how someone else feels, your nerves will not automatically diminish someone’s attraction towards you.

References

[i] Hughes, Susan M., Marissa A. Harrison, and Kathleen M. de Haan. 2020. “Perceived Nervous Reactions during Initial Attraction and Their Potential Adaptive Value.” Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology 6 (1): 30–56. doi:10.1007/s40750-019-00127-y.

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