When the Laws of Attraction Don't Apply

Three "rules" — and the exceptions to them.

Posted May 17, 2018

Richard Foster/Flickr
Source: Richard Foster/Flickr

What attracts you to a potential partner: Good looks? A great personality? A sense of humor? We are typically attracted to those who are physically attractive, similar to us, and familiar to us (Fugère et al., 2015). However, these factors don't always inspire attraction. In fact, there are often direct contradictions to these fundamental laws of attraction.  

1. Physical Attractiveness

Romantic attraction often begins with the experience of physical attraction, guiding us toward potential partners who are healthy, age-appropriate, and able to reproduce (Weeden and Sabini, 2005). However, the importance of physical attractiveness may be overestimated. To appeal to us, potential mates do not necessarily need to be attractive, but just attractive to us. In fact, many of us fail to approach attractive individuals because of our fear of rejection (Greitemeyer, 2010). Instead, it seems that we adjust our perceptions of others' physical attractiveness based on our own level of physical attractiveness. For example, more attractive people tend to perceive fewer others as attractive, while less attractive individuals consider a broader range of potential partners as appealing (Montoya, 2008). This adjustment of our perceptions of physical attractiveness seems to be good for our relationships: Finding a partner who shares a similar level of physical attractiveness with us can enhance our long-term relationship success (Feingold, 1998; Fugère et al., 2015). Further, the longer we know each other, the less important physical attractiveness becomes to beginning and maintaining a long-term relationship (Hunt et al., 2015). 

Perhaps the law of physical attraction should be modified: We don’t necessarily look for partners who are physically attractive, but physically attractive to us. Real-life dating and mating decisions appear to reflect this modified law of attraction. We choose to pursue relationships with those who are attractive to us (see Hunt et al., 2015; Luo and Zhang, 2009; Thao et al., 2010). There are also good reasons to avoid extremely attractive partners: Relationships involving highly attractive individuals are less likely to endure over the long term (Ma-Kellams et al., 2017).

2. Similarity

Perceived similarity is a strong indicator of liking and seems to be an important precursor to both friendships and romantic relationships (Byrne, 1961; Byrne, 1971; Byrne and Blaylock, 1963). We tend to like others who are similar to us in terms of attitudes, educational background, demographic characteristics, and even first names (see Fugère et al., 2015). However, when we think about our relationships, we often think about personality similarity, rather than other types. In fact, we are less likely to resemble our romantic partners in personality characteristics than we are to resemble our romantic partners in attitudes and values (Luo and Klohnen, 2005). 

In terms of personality, it seems that once again the law of attraction should be modified: We do not seem to match our partners in terms of absolute levels of personality characteristics — for example, one partner is likely to be more extraverted or less conscientious than the other. What seems to be important in personality similarity is the overall pattern for both partners across personality traits. If both you and your partner are relatively more extraverted and agreeable, and less neurotic and open to new experiences, your personality patterns across traits may be more similar than your levels on any one particular trait. This “profile-based similarity” is more strongly associated with romantic satisfaction than similarity on individual traits (Luo and Klohnen, 2005).

3. Familiarity 

The classic theory of mere exposure (Zajonc, 1968) suggests that the more we encounter a person, the more we should like that person. Experimental evidence shows that we find photographs more attractive when we see them more often (Zajonc, 1968) and that we find people more attractive when we encounter them more often (Moreland and Beach, 1992). We even like others more when we interact with them more frequently online (Reis et al., 2011). Further, we feel more attraction to those who physically resemble us and our family members (Fraley and Marks, 2010). However, increased familiarity does not always lead to increased liking. Encountering individuals frequently can lead to liking or disliking, such as when we have wonderful neighbors or noisy neighbors (Ebbeson et al., 1976). Further, novelty can sometimes be more attractive than familiarity. Little et al. (2013) showed that after being exposed to photographs of women, female participants rated those familiar women as more attractive, but men rated those familiar women as less attractive.

Additionally, the authors found that although women rated men’s faces as more attractive when the men resembled women’s current partners, men rated women’s faces as less attractive if they resembled men’s current partners. Even women may prefer less familiar partners at certain times: Salvatore et al. (2017) discovered that women in the most fertile portion of their menstrual cycles found men from other ethnic backgrounds (but not men from the same ethnic background) more attractive. These researchers speculate that strangers may be more attractive due to an unconscious desire for genetically diverse offspring.

Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Source: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

So, once again, the laws of attraction may need to be revised: Familiarity may be attractive under some circumstances, and novelty may be more attractive under other circumstances. 

If it seems that the laws of attraction are not working in the ways you expect, consider these exceptions. 


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Byrne, D. D. (1971). The ubiquitous relationship: Attitude similarity and attraction: A cross-cultural study. Human Relations, 24(3), 201–207. doi:10.1177/001872677102400302

Byrne, D., & Blaylock, B. (1963). Similarity and assumed similarity of attitudes between husbands and wives. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(6), 636–640. doi:10.1037/h0045531

Feingold, A. (1988). Matching for attractiveness in romantic partners and same-sex friends: A meta-analysis and theoretical critique. Psychological Bulletin, 104(2), 226–235. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.104.2.226 

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Greitemeyer, T. (2010). Effects of reciprocity on attraction: The role of a partner’s physical attractiveness. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 317–330. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01278.x

Hunt, L. L., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2015). Leveling the playing field: Longer acquaintance predicts reduced assortative mating on attractiveness. Psychological Science, 26(7), 1046-1053.

Little, A. C., DeBruine, L. M., & Jones, B. C. (2013). Sex differences in attraction to familiar and unfamiliar opposite-sex faces: Men prefer novelty and women prefer familiarity. Archives of Sexual Behavior, doi:10.1007/s10508-013-0120-2

Luo, S., & Klohnen, E. C. (2005). Assortative mating and marital quality in newlyweds: A couple-centered approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(2), 304–326. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.88.2.304

Luo, S., & Zhang, G. (2009). What leads to romantic attraction: Similarity, reciprocity, security, or beauty? Evidence from a speed-dating study. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 933–964. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00570.x

Ma‐Kellams, C., Wang, M. C., & Cardiel, H. (2017). Attractiveness and relationship longevity: Beauty is not what it is cracked up to be. Personal Relationships, 24(1), 146-161.

Montoya, R. (2008). I’m hot, so I’d say you’re not: The influence of objective physical attractiveness on mate selection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(10), 1315–1331. doi:10.1177/0146167208320387

Moreland, R., & Beach, S. (1992). Exposure effects in the classroom: The development of affinity among students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28(3), 255–276. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(92)90055-O

Reis, H. T., Maniaci, M. R., Caprariello, P. A., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2011). Familiarity does indeed promote attraction in live interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(3), 557–570. doi:10.1037/a0022885

Salvatore, J. F., Meltzer, A. L., March, D. S., & Gaertner, L. (2016). Strangers with benefits attraction to outgroup men increases as fertility increases across the menstrual cycle. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167216678860.

Thao, H., Overbeek, G., & Engels, R. E. (2010). Effects of attractiveness and social status on dating desire in heterosexual adolescents: An experimental study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(5), 1063–1071. doi:10.1007/s10508-009-9561-z

Weeden, J., & Sabini, J. (2005). Physical attractiveness and health in Western societies: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 131(5), 635–653. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.5.635

Zajonc, R. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2, Pt.2), 1–27. doi:10.1037/h0025848.