The Most Powerful Non-Physical Trait That Attracts Others
Research reveals how attraction to others is really about us.
Posted Jul 06, 2019
Attraction—we know it when we feel it. And it's not all about looks. If you were to name the top five people you love to spend time with, it is highly unlikely your list would reflect merely the five most physically attractive people you know.
We all have people in our lives who make us feel happy, people we love to be around. On the flip side, there are people we try to avoid because they make us feel stressed and emotionally drained. What accounts for the difference? Perhaps, no surprise, it has nothing to do with the way they look.
Affection, Affiliation, and Affective Presence
A major factor in our attraction to others is the way they make us feel. We are drawn to people who make us feel happy, hopeful, and optimistic, and when they are gone, we want to see them again. Research reveals how this works.
Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein, in a piece entitled "The Way You Make Me Feel” (2010), examined the manner in which people affect the way others feel.[i] Examining data from 48 groups, they found evidence to suggest that there are consistent, individual differences in the emotions people feel, known as trait affect, as well as in the emotions people elicit in others, known as trait affective presence.
After controlling for emotional contagion, they report that the different emotions people feel are due to trait affect and trait affective presence. They found positive affective presence to be linked with greater “network centrality”—reflected in the number of individuals who listed the participant as a close friend—and negative affective presence linked with greater extraversion, but lower agreeableness.
Eisenkraft and Elfenbein note that their results illustrate “partner effects” within social interaction, described as “the behavior and feelings that one elicits in others and, consequently, the footprint that one leaves behind.”
Finding that affective presence goes beyond emotional contagion, they recognize that the emotion elicited is not just about catching the emotions others are experiencing. They suggest that mechanisms of transmission may include differences in expressive style—non-verbal cues, for example—as well as patterns of interpersonal behavioral, such as acts of warmth or dominance.
Eisenkraft and Elfenbein opined that their evidence for trait affective presence was especially strong, because they examined how people felt when they were with close acquaintances in different settings, as opposed to how participants interacted with strangers. The impact of affective presence between strangers was tested by subsequent research.
Affective Presence Prompts Romantic Interest
Raul Berrios et al. in a study entitled “Why Do You Make Us Feel Good?” (2015) examined how affective presence affects romantic interest.[ii] They had 40 people participate in a speed-dating event where they “dated” six or seven partners of the opposite sex.
Using a social relations model analysis, they confirmed that participants were more likely to want to see dates again when the dates had a greater positive affective presence. Thus, creating positive emotions appears to promote romantic attraction.
Among other conclusions, Berrios et al. found that regarding emotional disposition and skills, people who work to improve their own emotions and are tuned in to the emotions of others are more likely to elicit positive emotions in other people. Interestingly, however, they found that people who create positive emotions in others do not necessarily experience positive emotions themselves.
Regarding personality traits, they found that agreeableness and extraversion were the two traits linked with positive affective presence. They note that agreeable people are engaging and considerate, and thus would be expected to elicit positive emotional responses in others.
The link between extraversion and positive affective presence, however, was unexpected, given that the study by Eisenkraft and Elfenbein (2010) found extraversion to be linked with negative affective presence. Berrios et al. suggest that perhaps the difference has to do with the different types of interpersonal interactions in the two studies. Their speed-dating event might have elicited positive emotion in the extraverts, which might have prompted reciprocal positive emotions from interaction partners.
The Way You Make Me Feel
Thankfully, attraction is apparently more than skin deep. It involves not only how we look, but also the way we make others feel. In attracting and bonding with others, agreeableness and emotional regulation prompt positive emotions and predict relational success.
[i]Eisenkraft, Noah, and Hillary Anger Elfenbein. "The Way You Make Me Feel: Evidence for Individual Differences in Affective Presence." Psychological Science 21, no. 4 (2010): 505-10.
[ii]Berrios, Raul, Peter Totterdell, and Karen Niven. “Why Do You Make Us Feel Good? Correlates and Interpersonal Consequences of Affective Presence in Speed‐dating.” European Journal of Personality 29, no. 1 (2015): 72–82.