We’ve all been there. Someone compelling comes into view, and our heart rate speeds up and body temperature rises. Attraction comes over us like a wave, powerful and seemingly unstoppable. But is it? Can we control whom we’re attracted to?
Not surprisingly, sexual attraction is largely unconscious.
That’s because it’s galvanized by the limbic system, a primitive section of the brain responsible for regulating essential functions like hunger. When encountering a potential mate, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus spurs the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, causing the sensations of lust or love. Thanks to the efficiency of this loop, “people often make up their mind about someone within the first three minutes [of encountering them],” Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist, senior research fellow with The Kinsey Institute, and author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, tells mbg.
The limbic system is a powerful force, so sexual or romantic yearning tends to overpower thoughts from our higher-order prefrontal cortex. As Fisher points out, “We can overlook a great number of problems” in the object of our desire.
So, what do we find attractive?
The answer is part cultural and part biological, says Fisher.
First, we tend to be drawn to people who are similar to us. We’re commonly attracted to those who remind us of loved ones, such as parents, former significant others, or friends. “Subconsciously, hormones are activated because the other person has triggered some kind of similarity or resemblance,” says Beverly B. Palmer, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life, to mbg. One study found we may find ourselves less attracted to people who differ significantly from ourselves in terms of personality traits, and we’re more attracted to those who are complementary toward ourselves or perhaps “better versions” of ourselves.
That attraction to what’s similar likely explains why we also tend to date people who share our race, socioeconomic status, education level, and political affiliation. U.S. Census data shows just 10% of marriages in 2016 were interracial or interethnic, and a well-known 2014 analysis about race and dating preferences conducted by OkCupid found that although a significant percentage of respondents indicated that they would date someone of a different race, they didn’t walk the walk when it actually came to swiping and connecting with matches. Similarly, 77% of Republicans and Democrats said their spouse or partner was in the same party in a Pew Research Center survey from 2016, and the importance of shared politics has gone so far as to lead to the rise of separate dating apps for conservatives.
Another factor frequently cited in pop culture is smell, sometimes in the context of pheromones. Some experts, like Fisher, say that the sense does not have significant bearing on whom we find attractive. (“It’s love at first sight, not love at first smell,” she says, explaining that the human sense of sight is much keener than smell.) That said, other experts do believe factors like deodorants, perfumes, and bodily smells can play a role in attraction. Research on this specific topic is inconclusive, with one study indicating that women preferred men whose genes displayed a different immune response from theirs, and another revealing that women were turned on by men who smelled similarly to them. Still another showed that women were drawn to men whose perspiration was similar to their father’s.
Attention to looks: is that biology or culture?
Even though many of us don’t want to admit it, good looks are the strongest factor influencing attraction. That’s according to Madeleine A. Fugère, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and author of The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships.
“When we consciously state our preferences for an ideal long-term partner, most of us say that traits, such as kindness, mutual affection, and intelligence, are more important than physical attractiveness,” she tells mbg. (According to research, altruism, in particular, is a compelling trait, particularly for women.) But in actuality, “physical attractiveness has a stronger impact on our dating decisions than factors such as personality or education.”
This emphasis makes sense. After all, humans link “attractive” physical features with health, youth, and fertility. For men and women, symmetrical faces are appealing. Research has also shown straight men prefer women with a waist-to-hip ratio of about 70%. Why? “People who vary from that basic percentage are more likely to have pregnancy loss and are more susceptible to certain diseases and fertility challenges,” says Fisher. Similarly, straight men in one study responded to a specific spinal curvature in women, one linked with the ability to successfully birth children.
Importantly, many of the studies available on this subject are based on relatively small groups of primarily white people, meaning the findings may very well not be representative of people of other races or of the general population. This is an issue in many areas of scientific research, but it's particularly important to point out in the case of attraction, much of which may be heavily influenced by factors such as race, socioeconomic status, or other aspects of identity. These factors play a large role in our cultural understanding of beauty, and so studies that don't take them into account may not fully capture the truth about attraction.
Indeed, cultural body ideals play a sizable role in what people find attractive. For instance, the glorification of thin frames is a relatively recent, Western phenomenon. From the “Venus of Willendorf” figurines from tens of thousands of years ago to the voluptuous women portrayed in paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt, bigger and rounder figures have historically been idealized. In fact, “The scarcity of food throughout most of history had led to connotations that being fat was good, and that corpulence and increased ‘flesh’ were desirable as reflected in the arts, literature, and medical opinion of the times,” according to an analysis by Garabed Eknoyan, M.D., a nephrologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. “Only in the latter half of the nineteenth century did being fat begin to be stigmatized for aesthetic reasons,” he writes.
To that end, we also tend to be influenced by the opinions of our friends, family, and society as a whole. When media narratives frequently show us images of thinner, light-skinned women as the beauty ideal, for example, we internalize them until they become a subconscious preference. Validating this, according to one study of white college students, men preferred women with lower BMIs than are actually healthy. “Cultural and family norms can have a big impact on the types of people we might choose to pursue or not pursue as potential romantic partners,” Fugère says.
All that said, sometimes looks aren’t everything. Palmer adds that “there is some interesting research showing that finding out that a potential partner has a good personality can broaden our acceptance of different body types.”
Interestingly, the qualities people seek out also differ depending on whether their goal is a fling or serious partnership.
“Research shows that when we ask women to think about having a short-term relationship like a one-night stand, they are more interested in men who are more physically attractive,” Fugère says. “In contrast, when we ask women to think about a long-term relationship, physical attractiveness is less important. These preferences may reflect the evolutionary trade-off of the importance of good genetic quality versus the importance of finding a partner who will stay over the long-term and potentially help to raise offspring.”
Beyond the cultural and biological, we’re also intrigued by another’s romantic and sexual interest in us, explains psychologist and researcher Arthur Aron. In fact, a recent study revealed that being the object of attraction is a predictor of sexual desire for women.
Another predictor is the ineluctable energy we experience with certain people. A recent study had prospective daters complete more than 100 surveys describing themselves and their mate preferences, but researchers still couldn’t predict who would hit it off at a speed dating event. “When we feel a spark when interacting with a potential date, our preferences and deal-breakers [such as education level or height] may not matter at all,” Fugère wrote in Psychology Today.
Selecting more intentionally.
At the end of the day, our attraction to others is largely instinctual and primitive, but according to Fisher, we can definitely “triumph over these basic feelings” to some extent. If we wish to adjust or be more open-minded about our attractions, it helps to understand the factors that influence our pull toward others. By remaining conscious of our innate preferences and qualities that trigger our attraction, we can engage our higher-order thinking if we choose to do so. The result: a more intentional process for finding potential mates.
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Dina Cheney is an author and food and health content expert living in Cos Cob, Connecticut. She has written six books, including The New Milks. Additionally, she writes about food, nutrition, health, and wellness and creates recipes for numerous outlets. Cheney’s work has appeared in Every Day with Rachael Ray, Parents, Clean Eating, Cooking Light, Prevention.com, Fine Cooking, Dr. Oz The Good Life, Men's Journal, and more. She graduated from Columbia College, Columbia University, with her bachelor's in english and anthropology, and also attended the Institute of Culinary Education.