Post No.: 0785
Physical attractiveness can be influenced by a culture that believes, for instance, that thin versus curvy bodies, or tanned versus pale complexions, are most ideal. But what people find attractive is ultimately an individual thing. It can be shaped by personal experiences like feeling repelled by anyone who looks like a school bully, or attracted to someone who reminds us of a kind teacher, we once knew. So what’s considered ‘attractive’ is subjective and is shaped by cultural, personal and temporal factors.
But research suggests a pattern that people are more likely to be attracted to those who resemble them, not just personality-wise but physically (the egocentric bias). This might possibly be because of ‘sexual imprinting’, whereby mate preferences are partly shaped by learning at a young age – usually by using one’s parents as the model, whom we’ll of course somewhat resemble due to our inherited genetics unless we were adopted. (We must be careful though about breeding with those who are too genetically close to us! Eurgh.)
Most people like what’s familiar and similar to them. Opposites (except concerning gender-related features i.e. masculine versus feminine features e.g. men with v-shaped torsos and deep voices, women with curvy figures and higher voices – although this can depend on one’s sexuality, and deviations aren’t always deal-breakers) don’t attract anywhere near as much as similarities, like regarding our personalities, values, beliefs, religions, ages, educational levels, interests, life experiences, demographic and economic statuses, or ambitions. Couples who are psychologically similar and therefore share the same loving style (e.g. led by desire or led by affection) stand a better chance of staying together. Relationships are complex and there are many reasons why one can last or fail, but similarity is a good predictor of relationship happiness and longevity.
People tend to end up going out with mates who are about as attractive as they are. Or it could be again because people tend to prefer others who look familiar, and thus likely similar, to them. The ‘matching hypothesis/phenomenon’ is about how people typically choose partners who have, for instance, a similar level of intelligence, humour and physical attractiveness as them. When choosing whom to approach, we tend to approach those whose attractiveness ruffly matches, or not too greatly exceeds, our own – we choose those who seem desirable but are mindful of the limits of our own desirability. People also usually prefer those who have a similar history to them in terms of the number of previous sexual partners and relationships.
So, in principle anyway, to attract a decent person, you must be a decent person yourself. To attract Miss Right, you must be Mr Right, and vice-versa. Desiring someone won’t make you deserve them!
These – like everything else about this topic – are only broad population generalisations though so you can be personally idiosyncratic with your preferences, and a relationship can still manage to work despite even, say, strong political or religious differences.
So happy couples can differ significantly in age, physical attractiveness and other traits. In these cases, there are likely compensating qualities, such as perhaps their wealth and status, or attention and kindness, which bring their perceived overall level of attractiveness to about equal with each other’s to be ‘in the same league’.
It can depend on how important each trait personally is to us as to how much we care about how similar someone is to us regarding it (e.g. if we’re not classist then dating someone who doesn’t have the same ‘social class’ as us won’t be an issue). But overall, similarity leads to liking because it’s related to compatibility. We understand each other. Contrary to the popular cliché – opposites don’t normally attract. We’re not magnetic poles. The desire for similar mates actually far outweighs the desire for physically attractive mates.
We may like those with similar opinions as us because we presume they’ll highly likely like us in return. Those who share our worldviews will validate rather than challenge them, which is comforting. We especially like those who listen to us and who we’ve successfully converted to our way of thinking. There are many cases that buck such trends, but then what often happens is that the closer two people become over time, the more they’ll start to mirror each other (e.g. their musical preferences or even one partner converting their religion). We begin to become interested in the same things as those we fancy are interested in, or we become interested in the things that are quirky about them – we basically desire to better understand whom we like, and have a tendency to copy whom we like.
So, concerning either friends or romantic partners – birds of a feather do typically flock together. We’re more likely to be influenced by those we like, and we tend to like people who are similar to us. However, since we naturally gravitate towards those who are similar to us in our beliefs, values, etc. – we naturally gravitate towards our own cliques and echo chambers, which, in the wider picture, can lead to ingroup and outgroup polarisation, segregation and the widening of inequality in society. So this is something we must watch out for regarding our wider social circles.
Smiles that take over half a second to spread over your face (especially when accompanied with a slight head tilt) are particularly attractive. A positive characteristic, like an upbeat body language and tone, can induce the halo effect, which increases the presumed attractiveness of all the other attributes a person possesses, whilst blinding us to any negative attributes they have. Rightly or wrongly, we assume ‘beauty means good’. Post No.: 0555 examined judging by appearances more closely.
‘Good means beauty’ too though, so someone’s positive internal traits can start to make them seem even more externally physically attractive. So likeability can lead to physical attraction. In a similar way that happiness can produce a smile, and a smile can produce some happiness – physical attractiveness can infer warmth and kindness, and warmth and kindness can infer physical attractiveness. So be nice and considerate! Love sees loveliness – the more we love someone, the more we’ll find them physically attractive and the less we’ll find other people so.
You may also have found a particularly lovely person attractive and this person has freckles, so you start to subconsciously associate the two attributes together and suddenly find freckles themselves attractive. Or vice-versa, like how a mean person with fuzzy red hair at school can make you dislike red hair from then on. These associations can eventually shift though after new experiences.
You may have fancied a lot of traditionally physically fit people, but after learning how vacuous these particular people you dated were, you start to generally avoid people who remind you of them. It’s like ‘this person who looks like my ex is triggering’. It’s not really the merit or fault of the subsequent people you meet who just happen to possess a physical feature that reminds you of someone else and their internal traits – but our minds have a tendency to stereotype features as a cognitive shortcut. It can lead to prejudice, even if it’s positive prejudice (e.g. so what if someone looks like a certain celebrity? It won’t make them actually them!) We – if we were ideal beings – shouldn’t really judge others at first sight because a rapid judgement can only be based on shallow cues and stereotypes. If we give someone a chance as an individual, we might learn that they’re different on the inside – but that’s if we’ll give them a chance after making a snap judgement about them based on how they look!
Whom we compare to also has a bearing, so when we’re exposed to manipulated photographs of people all day – we, by comparison, won’t feel quite so attractive, hence the growing rate of insecurity amongst children and young adults. Being sexually aroused can temporarily make anyone of the gender(s) you prefer seem more attractive too, and the lingering effect of the exposure to extreme sexual depictions can make your own partner seem relatively less appealing i.e. viewing pornography could decrease the satisfaction with one’s own partner. Women tend to be more susceptible to insecure feelings than men when it comes to comparing themselves to highly attractive people of the same gender.
Facial and physical attractiveness is moderately correlated with likeability, and highly correlated with status and therefore popularity. ‘Facial attractiveness’ is probably about being the most proportionally average i.e. no extremes in sizes, shapes or positions, like either massive noses or miniscule ears; as well as about symmetry and complexion. So what most people judge as ‘beautiful’ is what is most prototypical i.e. most average. Even infants discriminate in this regard, which suggests that this preference is at least partly biologically primed.
This heuristic related to inferring or presuming the genetic fitness of each other may be culturally self-reinforcing too – when ‘good-looking’ people get treated favourably, they receive better opportunities and thus consequently end up actually being more socially adroit, successful, influential, confident and popular on average i.e. physically attractive people are more favoured, hence tend to develop a higher self-confidence, and so tend to be more favoured, and so on. This in turn reinforces the notion that ‘attractiveness equals good/good genetic material’. ‘Good-looking’ children and young adults do tend to be more relaxed, outgoing and popular. They also tend to be more gender-stereotyped (more masculine if male, more feminine if female), most likely due to self-fulfilling prophecies.
A contributing factor will also be ‘body socialisation’ i.e. children being exposed to messages of ‘physical ideals’ at a very young age via the popular media and even via toys; and thus learning certain associations between physical attractiveness and other desirable qualities. Children generally discriminate against obese people, particularly if they don’t have an accepted medical reason to excuse their obesity. Girls overall favour thin/skinny forms in other girls, and boys overall favour lean/athletic forms in other boys.
From all this – we can see that what’s most important isn’t how you look per se but how other people treat you; and this does involve a lot of unjust positive and negative discrimination based on shallow information. But it’s also partly about how you feel about and carry yourself. So however you look – like and be comfortable with yourself, exude confidence, and you’ll find that people will draw to you and like you more. Woof!
Beyond a certain level of physical attractiveness too, any more won’t matter one bit if your personality is found lacking. So if you’re extremely vain, it’ll start to become a colossal negative because you’re so self-focused on your own image that you neglect your other qualities, and other people.
As we get to know someone better, factors other than their appearance will influence whether acquaintance develops into friendship or an intimate relationship. So traits like kindness, intelligence and a good sense of humour are all still crucial. Therefore, for most, when it comes to the crunch when looking for a lasting partner rather than a casual fling – the personality of a person matters above all else. It’s what you’ll have to live with 96% of the time you’re together because you’re not going to be having sex all of the time (and not that personality doesn’t matter in bed too!) The other traits like looks and wealth just have to be considered okay enough.
But it’s not always clear-cut what is reflective of someone’s personality or something else. So we might not fancy someone who’s overweight because we think it reflects their gluttony and lack of self-care, or we might fancy someone who’s rich because we think it reflects their ambitiousness. I suppose the acid test is whether one will still fancy someone who has a smashing personality but is overweight due to Prader-Willi syndrome, or someone who is ambitious but has been struck with back luck from adverse systemic market conditions?