Social Psychology: The Role of Attraction

In determining our friends and partners, society’s influence, along with our own values for attraction, play an important role. There are varying levels of attraction, which determine the types of relationships people share. The four general factors that contribute to attraction and determine the strength of a relationship are physical attractiveness, proximity, similarity, and reciprocity. Physical attraction is an important dimension of forming an impression of someone.

Studies show that we are inclined to think negatively or dislike individuals who are unattractive, and more likely to overlook or pardon the faults of one who is more physically attractive. In an experiment done by Karen Dion (1972), women were given reports with attached photographs of severe classroom disruptions by elementary schoolchildren. The subjects tended to blame the disruptive behavior on the children who were unattractive, saying that it was easy to see that they were “brats. ” On the other hand, beautiful children were easily excused and received no such comment.


A similar experiment was done by Berscheid and Walster (1972), in which college students were shown photographs of attractive, average, and unattractive students, and asked them the rate the people in their photos on 27 personality traits. As expected, the attractive people received the most positive ratings, reflecting how judgements are made on the basis of attractiveness. In society, people who are perceived as being physically attractive are also often viewed as more intelligent, more popular, and more successful. This is described as the halo effect, a social perception that occurs unconsciously.

Research shows attractive people also have more occupational success and more dating experience than those less attractive. The reason attractive people seem to achieve more in life can be explained by our habit to categorize others before having an opportunity to evaluate their personalities, based on cultural stereotypes which say all attractive people possess good personalities and all ugly people must be inherently bad. Cunningham (1986) had male college students rate photographs of beauty-contest finalists and ordinary-looking college women, and then analyzed the differences in facial features between the two groups.

The features possessed by the beauty-contest finalists were associated with positive personality ratings, such as intelligent, sociable, and assertive. Thus, research supports the claim that beautiful people are perceived as having excellent personalities. However, Elliot Aronson believes that a person’s self-perception is a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which a person’s confident self-perception, further perpetuated by healthy feedback from others, may play a role in success as well. People who are confident about themselves and feel attractive, Aronson suggests, are just as successful as their counterparts who are judged to be good-looking.

Assumptions that beautiful people are more sociable, extroverted, popular, sexual, well adjusted, and friendly are universal. As shown in studies by Markus, Kitayama, and Heiman (1996), culture also plays a role in these assumptions. Individualistic societies (U. S. and Canada) further assume that beautiful people are indepedent, assertive, and self-reliant. Collectivist societies (Korea) did not make such assumptions, but rather, assumed that beautiful people had integrity, generosity, sensitivity, and concern for others. An important factor in the selection of our friends is due to proximity.

The majority of our friends live close to where we live, or at least where we lived during the time period the friendship developed (Nahemow & Lawton, 1975). In most cases, the more exposure we have to a stimulus, the more apt we are to like it. Proximity strengthens relationships because friendships develop after getting to know someone, and closeness in distance provides the easiest way to accomplish this goal. Segal (1974) observed that seating order according to alphabet predicted close friendships between people who’s surnames began with the same letter.

In the Westgate Housing research done by Festinger, Schachter, and Back (1950), friendship formation was tracked among families moved into Westgate apartment complexes. Couples would name their three closest friends. 65% of the friends mentioned were in the same building. 41% of the next-door neighbors (19′ apart) were close friends. 22% of those who were two doors away (38′ apart) said so. Only 10% of those who lived on opposite ends of the hall (89′ apart) said they were close friends.

Attraction also depended on functional distance: people whose rooms were next to the building’s mailboxes were more likely to have friends, since others would pass by them each day on the way to the mailbox. We tend to associate our opinions about other people with what we have in common. Agreement or similarities between two people would likely result in more attractiveness (Neimeyer & Mitchell, 1988). Theodore Newcomb (1961) observed male college students randomly assigned to be roommates in a dormitory at the start of a school year and predicted friendship formation by similarity.

Men became friends with those from the same demographic (e. g. race and economic background), as well as those with the same political attitudes and majors. Bordens (1995) believes romantic attractions have what is called matching principles. People tend to become involved with a partner when they usually closely matched in terms of physical attributes of social status. To keep bonds strong between people, it helps to have similarities to discuss and participate in.

Burleson and Samter (1996) found that people with high communication skills enjoy the company of people with high communication skills. People with low communication skills prefer the company of people with low communication skills. A mismatch leads to frustrating conversations and eventual breakup. A large part of interpersonal attraction is due to reciprocal liking. People tend to like those better who return the feeling of attraction, and this rewarding feeling of acceptance usually results in a higher level of attraction toward that person (Forgas, 1992; Zajonc & McIntosh, 1992).

An alternative explanation would be that reciprocity occurs because it is flattering to the ego (Gilbert & Jones, 1986). According to the ‘reward cost principle’ we are attracted to people who seem to like us (Aropnson, 1980). This attraction may be based on similarities or shared interests- a person agreeing with our beliefs, ideas and attitudes. This is attributed to the belief that when a person is in agreement with us, they support what we believe, providing us with the reward of reinforcement.

Rubin (1973) suggests that the rewarding nature of similarities lies in the basis for joint activities, affirmation through agreement leading to increased self confidence, ease of communication, vanity and reciprocal liking. Attraction relates to social psychology in that society’s influence and our own beliefs and values play an important role. Attraction is reinforced through physical attractiveness, proximity, similarity, and reciprocity. In applying these factors to your own relationships, you will find that interpersonal attraction does indeed play a role.

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