Attractiveness might be more about the environment, than about you
Dorian Minors • August 23, 2018
There are a number of things that occur naturally in our environment that can alter the attraction we feel for people. These things might seem small, but they have an outsize influence on our preferences for people.
1. Familiarity or 'mere exposure'
The more we see something, the more we like it.
The first, most basic is known as the 'mere exposure effect' by social psychologist Robert Zajonc. Basically, the more we see people, the more we like them. This is sometimes considered the very basic principle of attraction. To illustrate, take this study, in which researchers got four confederates (people in on the experiment) and enrolled them in a University class. Each one attended a different number of classes. One went to none, one went to five lectures, one to ten and the last confederate went to fifteen classes. None however, interacted with the class. At the end of the unit, the students in the class were shown slides of the confederates and were asked to rate their attractiveness. The more often the confederates attended class, the more attractive they were perceived by the students.
A number of explanations are put forward for this mere exposure effect. The first is the most straightforward. Basically, the familiar is safe and so we are attracted to it. If you're seeing something regularly and it hasn't hurt you yet, the probability is low that it will continue.
Other explanations are more complex, but make a lot of sense
- One explanation suggests that familiarity points out our common attributes to one another. We catch the same bus; we also wear suits to work every day; you have the same purse as me; and so on. Because we know we have things in common, we're also likely to assume we have other things in common. We'll talk more about this shortly. Identifying commonalities like these is, in fact, a crucial part of relationship development.
- Another suggests that we are more likely to be warm and friendly to people we think we'll have to see again.
- A third is the idea that we know we don’t have to work as hard to get to know someone we see often. This may motivate us to interact.
All of these explanations make much less sense when you look at some of Zajonc's original work on the subject. Zajonc had participants view a screen in which odd geometric shapes flashed into view for around one millisecond. This is thought to be under the threshold of conscious perception: too fast to process. The mere exposure of a weird shape for 1 millisecond made participants prefer them to other weird shapes they hadn't seen at all before. Subliminal perception is something that affects us in strange and unpredictable ways, but this mere exposure effect appears to be active even here - in the earliest stages of visual processing.
Perhaps it's best then not to read too much into this, and simply realise that mere exposure, or familiarity to a thing has some kind of extraordinarily powerful influence on our preferences.
Proximity (or propinquity)
Psychologists have long noticed that the closer we are to people, the more likely we are to be attracted to them. But some psychologists aren't talking about intimacy, but rather about geographical distance.
A psychologist named James Bossard looked at around 5000 marriage licences to see what they had in common. He found that about one in ten of these couples had lived in the same building and a third lived within five blocks of each other before they got married.
That study was done in the 1930s and the finding has been replicated over and over again.
A correlation doesn't always mean causation, of course. That is, just because two things happen together a lot, don't mean they make each other happen. At the turn of the century, nearly seventy years after Bossard's paper, the daughter, Isabel, of famous Myers-Briggs duo found that the critical factor at play was what she called 'functional distance'. Basically, if the distance between two people is configured in a way that facilitates social interactions, it will powerfully predict increases in attractiveness. This implies that it facilitates our other environmental factors listed here, like familiarity and similarity.
Similarity (or 'matching hypothesis')
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