Why do we find people attractive? What gives our chosen partner that edge over someone else? Well, Psychology has the answer and it's less romantic than you think. Dr Tim Jones, Head of The School of Psychology explores the science of attraction and asks:
Attraction - What's love got to do with it?
The answer is possibly very little. We are enthralled as much by the stories of celebrity romance as we are by the dance routines of Strictly Come Dancing or the bushtucker trials of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! Not a series passes without a tabloid headline following the latest romantic trials and tribulations of another celebrity couple who have seemingly found romance behind the camera only to find a few months later as filming winds down that their romance has quickly fizzled.
The soaring heart rates associated with dancing the Argentine Tango in front of millions of people or being locked in a confined space surrounded by cockroaches may provide an explanation to this phenomenon. An increased heart rate, dilated pupils and dry mouth are all physiological reactions associated with physical attraction. They are, however, also reactions associated with our fight/flight response or more specifically activation of the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. This unconsciously controlled system has provided an evolutionary advantage in either preparing us to flee dangerous situations or to stay and fight them. This is where the confusion and the misattribution of arousal can occur because we all experience the same physiological changes when we are physically attracted and ‘in love’ with someone as we do when we are facing a dangerous situation or are feeling anxious.
In 1974, Dutton and Aron manipulated the heart rates of participants to demonstrate how easily we can misattribute arousal. The study, a relatively simple one, required participants to walk across either a very high and swaying bridge suspended over a deep canyon or to walk across a low and stable bridge over a light brook. The high suspension bridge was clearly anxiety provoking as the male participants walked across the bridge slowly holding the handrail and rated the bridge as more fearful. When asked to respond to a story prompt by a female interviewer they also provided more racy themes.
When walking across the low bridge the opposite occurred with participants walking quickly and providing fairly uneventful stories. The female interviewer also provided her telephone number to participants stating that they could call her following the study if they were interested in the results. There are no prizes for guessing who called – it was the men who walked across the high, swaying and more dangerous bridge where their level of arousal had been increased. The men in this group had clearly misattributed their level of arousal to attraction rather than fear.
Misattribution of arousal happens when our brains are unable to label the emotions we are feeling. Instead, we search for external cues in our environment to help us understand and process those emotions. Schacter-Singer’s two-factor theory of emotion suggests that we experience emotions when physiological arousal takes place and we use the environment around us to search for emotional cues to label our arousal. When celebrities are faced with the anxiety provoking silver-cloche or are about to take their first steps onto the Strictly dancefloor, they will no doubt experience increased heart rates and in searching for the reasons for this in their environment will mistakenly turn to each other and attribute their arousal as attraction rather than fear.
Of course other factors are likely to play their part in televised celebrity relationships; proximity, similarity and positivity are all key in determining levels of attraction. Regardless of whether celebrities are spending their time couped up in a Welsh castle or in the dance studio they are spending significant amounts of time together, will have common ground and will look for positivity in challenging situations. Each of these factors plays its hand in the game of attraction.
Determining levels of attraction, who we find and maintain attracted to is more complicated than physiological arousal or proximity. Silverman’s matching hypothesis would argue that we look for people of similar attractiveness to us since being rejected by someone perceived as more physically attractive damages our self-esteem and, in an effort, to protect this we look for similarity. Attractiveness itself is not without problem as research shows that we are more attracted to ‘average’ faces than we are to faces with defining or bold features. Faces containing averaged-features taken from multiple faces are seemingly perceived as more attractive over all other facial types.
At this point the game of attraction seems unthinkably complicated; physiological arousal cannot be relied upon, simply being close, being positive or being similar is not enough and having defining features may actually help us lose the game. Social Exchange Theory may hold both the answer to a successful relationship and also explain why after the initial gush of misattributed jungle (or castle) emotion that celebrities fall as quickly out of love as they did falling into it. Long-term attraction is based on the balance between cost and reward. The more cost and less reward experienced in a relationship the less attractive we will find our partner and the more likely the relationship will end. We also look for and find people attractive who are able to meet our needs and provide social rewards over their physical appearance.
So where does this leave our celebrities? Once the excitement felt at the prospect of dancing in Blackpool is gone and the proximity of the dressing room has passed, the initial similarities felt by celebrity couples may start to turn into differences. If one of our newly in-love couples craves the media limelight more or spends more time with Instagram than their partner the potential for disaster looms – the imbalance of cost and reward.
Whilst we are not celebrities we can learn from the laws of attraction, avoid the pitfalls of misattributed arousal and work on finding the balance of long-term attraction and in doing so help to find relationship success.
Psychology can help us understand the world around us and we can specialise depending on our interests in business, clinical, counselling, forensic, psychology or sport and exercise psychology. Dr Tim Jones is Head of Psychology at Worcester, although Tim is a cognitive psychologist, he has taught a wide range of modules and content including; research methods, biopsychology, cognitive neuroscience, individual differences, social psychology and environmental psychology.
All views expressed in this blog do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.