The Science of Attraction

Science Features Attraction
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The Science of Attraction

You know it the moment you feel it—that instantaneous surge of emotion that occurs when someone catches your eye and you find yourself drawn to them. But is there scientific benefit in decoding the bells and whistles that go off in that microsecond? Researchers believe so and are studying the way our brains and bodies react to “attraction” so us normals can better understand why some people make our hearts beat faster.


Most of us like to believe that love and attraction are simply matters of the heart. In reality, there is much more at play when we become interested in someone. When deciding who we want to spend our time with, we are usually aware of their personalities, passions and values. But what is less obvious are those invisible factors which illicit instant fascination and make us muster up the courage to say hello.

Though the complex biology of attraction is still relatively mysterious, studies have pointed to the idea that it is tied heavily to our genetics and the way our senses perceive another person.

Symmetry and What It Tells Us

One of the oldest-known scientific explanations for why we find some people more attractive than others is whether or not their physical appearance is symmetrical. Symmetry has long been associated with perfection in art and nature and studies have shown that we prefer more symmetrical faces over those that are asymmetrical.

Dr. Steven Gangestad, from the University of New Mexico, has studied the factors that occur during development that contribute to symmetry. Having a symmetrical face and body is a sign that the person’s DNA has not suffered from oxidative stress during the early stages of growth, meaning that they are more likely to be healthy and strong.

When we are physically attracted to someone, our brains are really just judging whether or not they are well-proportioned, thereby deciding if their genetics are tough enough to have made it through development and are good to pass along to their future children.

Our minds make these conclusions in a split-second and we are often completely unaware that our initial reaction to seeing an attractive face is really being influenced by a search for genetically suitable partners.

What Does Smell Have to Do With It?

More than just detecting perfume or cologne, our noses are finely tuned to picking up on pheromones, a scent-bearing chemical secreted in sweat or other bodily fluids. Like fingerprints, each person has distinct pheromones associated with their bodies and these imperceptible scents tell a lot about you.

Technically speaking, pheromones transmit unique signals between organisms of the same species and often do not have a detectable scent. Each pheromone elicits unique responses in another organism, though human pheromones tend to operate more as modulators that affect mood, rather than cause behavioral changes.

Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary biologist, again from from the University of New Mexico, conducted a study in which women were asked to smell sweaty shirts from a variety of men, and then decide which scent was most attractive to them. The overwhelming result was that women found the scent belonging to a symmetrical man to be most attractive.

When we meet someone new, our noses instantly pick up on these imperceptible scents and make a knee-jerk judgement about whether or not we are attracted to them. Even Chanel can’t compete with nature’s perfume.

Personality Reigns Supreme

Though our senses play a critical role in determining that immediate spark of attraction and give us cause to do a double-take, building long-lasting relationships still relies heavily on personality.

A critical difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom is that we value good character higher than physical attraction when selecting someone to spend our lives with. Honesty, kindness and faithfulness are traits that a 2014 study discovered make people more attractive.

In this study, 120 participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of 60 photographs of female faces in neutral expressions. Two weeks later they were shown the same photos, but half of the faces were accompanied by positive words, like kind, and the other half were accompanied by negative words, like mean. Those with the positive descriptions were rated highest for facial attractiveness, giving evidence that character really is key.

We are also attracted to those with the ability to be vulnerable. The 36-question study conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron explores whether intimacy between total strangers can be accelerated by discussing personal questions under the assumption that vulnerability results in closeness.

Really getting to know someone allows the mind and body to transition from the infatuation and shallow interest that are associated with sexual attraction, and into the deeper emotions necessary for developing strong relationships.

Who we are attracted to, and who we love, are still very personal matters but our natural instincts and preferences give us the push we need to act on what we feel.

Image: Artem Poleshchuk, CC-BY

Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.