The science of attraction

Starting and keeping healthy relationships takes skill and hard work, but this doesn't necessarily come easily to us. Professor of Social Psychology Viren Swami has some fascinating insights about why.

Is it true that opposites attract? Or that playing hard to get will make you more alluring? Or that we each have a soulmate out there somewhere? Actually, none are true.

Professor Viren Swami has dedicated the last ten years to studying how people form relationships, and is an expert in the ‘science of attraction’, as well as in body image. “These ideas are indeed myths,” he says. “Almost a half of people believe that opposites attract. However, the evidence says that we prefer people similar to us”, he explains. “And as for playing hard to get, studies have shown that if I offer you something you really like – such as chocolate – but say you can’t have it for 20 minutes, when you do get it you’ll probably not like it as much as you would without the wait.”

“Almost a half of people believe that opposites attract. However, the evidence says that we prefer people similar to us.”

Viren’s work is about helping people form and maintain healthy, and equitable, relationships. “Many of us don’t have the skills to form good relationships, yet we tend to be mentally and physically healthier when we do.”

Viren is clear he is not a therapist: ”I study population trends, and don’t give individuals advice or therapy”. It is for this reason that he does not like to give rules or advice: ”I absolutely don’t give people ‘laws’ of attraction or fool-proof methods for getting someone to date you. I’m all about understanding how and why we behave the way we do, so that individuals can adapt this to their own circumstances. It’s science rather than self-help.”

Viren brings together principles that hold broadly true across most societies and are laid out in his book, Attraction Explained, published in 2015. They cluster around four main concepts.

  1. We prefer people who are nearby. His first principle is one often overlooked: geography. “We like people who are nearby, in our social unit. It’s about mere exposure. The more we see them, the nicer they appear than people further away,” he explains.
  2. Women care about looks as much as men. The second is that physical appearance does matter. We are told not to judge people by it, but we all do: we know if we find someone attractive in under a second. We like to think we are not biased by something so superficial, but all studies show that, before social interaction has begun, physical appearance is a fairly accurate indicator of personality. For example, a person’s hair style gives clues to whether they are an introvert or an extrovert. The myth is that men care more about appearance than women – whereas women are ‘nicer’, caring more about personality. But on speed dates, appearance has been shown to be equally important to both genders. It’s just that women are more shy about admitting it. The good news is this concern drops very quickly once attraction has started, although it then rises again if a physical relationship starts. “A recent theory of mine is the ‘love is blind’ bias whereby people, a few weeks into a relationship, see their partners as more attractive than themselves, and than other people would,” explains Viren. “This gives your self-esteem a boost and is probably an evolutionary drive to help us bond to that person.”
  3. I like you if you like me. The third, reciprocity, is by far the most important: that we like people who like us. And reciprocal self-disclosure, the sharing of something that reveals your ‘true self’ is key for forming a bond with. If this is not reciprocated then the relationship will falter quickly, so timing is crucial.
  4. Opposites don’t attract. The fourth point is similarity. We prefer people who are more similar to us and dislike those who are dissimilar. There are two types: ‘status homophily’ – the liking people of the same class, age, ethnicity or religion. “In the UK class is probably still the main one, whereas in other countries it might be religion.” The second is ‘value homophily’ which includes things like political opinions, outlook, taste in music, and degree of sense of self. The latter is the theory that, whether you have a good or poor sense of self, you form better relationships with people whose sense of self is at the same level.

These four theories are based on Viren’s own research and pulling together hundreds of pieces of research by other academics. But Viren is more than a theoretician. His latest project has been to run events, called Attraction Labs, that explain the science of attraction to groups of up to 100 people of an evening. They involve people of all genders and ages doing carefully-constructed activities: how to design a good chat up line, how body language and dance movements signal different things, or how sharing food can be a way to connect. To take an example, 'What is your favourite pizza topping?' is a very good chat-up line – because it pushes you into conversation, but is not threatening, and invites a question back. It also teaches about reciprocity, and asking open questions, whereas making closed statements is not good (eg 'My friend is a helicopter pilot').

I’m all about understanding how and why we behave the way we do, so that individuals can adapt this to their own circumstances.”

The Attraction Labs, organised by private company Guerrilla Science, have been run at all kinds of venues including the Shambala Festival, and co-funded and publicised by our University. “There is lots of science but also lots of laughter and they’re very informal. We have also recently run Queer Attraction Labs which have been very successful”.

In the pipeline are longer four-hour workshops that hope to actually improve people’s behaviour: how to show genuine interest in a conversation, how to read clues from another person, and how to manage online dating. There may also be ‘confessional booths’ where you can discuss specific problems with a therapist or scientist.

What is the greatest challenge of Viren’s research? “It’s that people want individual help, but I’m not trained to help them in that way. I got an email just this morning from someone whose relationship has broken down after four years. I do suggest they see a therapist but it’s really hard not to be able to help them.”

“But I will always have a coffee with them and sit and listen.”