The 11 Things That Drive Romantic Attraction
Attraction is not predictable, but it is never too late to learn.
Posted Sep 27, 2017
Here's a dream scenario: No more awkward first dates. If you are single and hoping not to be, you can fill out a detailed questionnaire and submit the information to a database containing similar information from other relationship seekers. A computational algorithm then determines how well you match with others in terms of your personality and what you are looking for in a potential partner. Once you have been matched with another person, all you need to do is arrange a date and go from there.
If this scenario sounds familiar, that's no coincidence: Many online dating sites provide at least some primitive version of the above scenario. People seeking relationships supply first-person insight into their personality and what they are seeking in a partner. They are then matched on the basis of this self-reported data.
As anecdotal evidence suggests, this approach can be successful. People do, occasionally, find love using online dating services.
However, the success of such services is unlikely to be a result of algorithms calculating who will be a good match for each other based on self-reports. In a recent study, published in Psychological Science in August 2017, scientists tested this sort of approach to dating and found that self-reports of personality from potential partners do not predict attraction.
The team, led by psychologist Samantha Joel of the University of Utah, asked volunteers to fill out questionnaires about their own personality traits and the traits they would like in a potential partner. The researchers then arranged four-minute, face-to-face speed dates and collected subsequent feedback about how attracted people were to their predicted matches during these brief encounters.
The researchers found that people were no more likely to be attracted to predetermined matches than they were to non-matches.
The study methodology had well-known limitations: It only allowed for testing of initial attraction, not an attraction that may emerge from repeated encounters. Further, it followed the existing online dating strategy of relying on self-reports to determine personality and the traits one would like to see manifested in a potential partner. The first limitation is not necessarily a methodological flaw, as long as we draw a sharp line between initial attraction and longer-term attraction/romantic love. The second, however, is problematic. We are often very bad judges of our own personality and the traits we want others to possess. This limitation could have been avoided to some extent by using more sophisticated measures of personality and partner preference; for instance, by relying on third-person perspectives from family members, co-workers, and friends.
If this common dating approach fails, however, it raises the question of whether there might be other ways to predict who may be successful romantic partners. Information about personality by itself is unlikely to help predict good long-term matches. But a combination of feature-matching and behavioral modification—that is, teaching people how to remain attractive to as well as attracted to their partners—may hold some promise.
Independent studies have found that long-term attraction and romantic love are more likely to occur when the attributes that generate attraction in general, together with certain social factors and circumstances that spark passion, are particularly strong.
Here are 11 features that together provide a decent indicator of who you will click with over the long term (Aron, et al. 1989):
1. Similarity. The similarity of people’s belief sets and, to a lesser extent, the similarity of their personality traits and ways of thinking.
2. Propinquity. Familiarity with the other, which can be caused by spending time together, living near the other, thinking about the other, or anticipating interaction with the other.
3. Desirable Characteristics. Outer physical appearance that is found desirable and, to a lesser extent, desirable personality traits.
4. Reciprocal Liking. When the other person is attracted to you or likes you, that can increase your own liking.
5. Social Influences. The potential union satisfying general social norms, and acceptance of the potential union within one’s social network, can contribute to people falling in love. Or, if a union does not satisfy general social norms or is not accepted by one’s social network, this can result in people falling out of love.
6. Filling Needs. If a person can fulfill needs for companionship, love, sex, or mating, there is a greater chance that the other person will fall in love with him or her.
7. Arousal/Unusualness. Being in an unusual or arousing environment can spark passion, even if the environment is perceived as dangerous or spooky (Dutton & Aron, 1974).
8. Specific Cues. A particular feature of the other may spark a particularly strong attraction; for instance, parts of their body or facial features.
9. Readiness. The more you want to be in a relationship, the lower your self-esteem and the more likely you are to fall in love.
10. Isolation. Spending time alone with another person can contribute to a development of passion.
11. Mystery. Some degree of mystery surrounding the other person, as well as uncertainty about what the other person thinks or feels, or when he or she may initiate contact, can also contribute to passion.
As the list makes clear, many of the factors that determine whether people should connect romantically are circumstantial or a result of how people behave in courtships and relationships. While it may be possible for modern technology to determine partner matches by relying not just on personality, but also on people's particular circumstances, no such algorithm can provide us with the skills necessary to maintain a relationship that is both healthy and exciting. These types of relationship skills may need to be acquired through long-term practice and training.
Aron A, Dutton DG, Aron, EN, Iverson, A. (1989) “Experiences of Falling in Love”, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships August 6, 3: 243-257.
Dutton, D.G., & Aron, A.P. (1974). “Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30 (4), 510-517.
Joel S, Eastwick, P, Finkel, E. "Is Romantic Desire Predictable? Machine Learning Applied to Initial Romantic Attraction," Psychological Science. Published online August 30, 2017.