What Determines Sexual Attraction?

Lesbian couple embracing in front of home

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First up, let's talk about what sexual attraction is. According to the LBGT Center at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, sexual attraction is "attraction that makes people desire sexual contact or shows sexual interest in another person(s)."

Pretty self-explanatory, right? What's less self-explanatory is how it happens. Everyone has been in the situation of not understanding why they are or aren't attracted to another person, and it turns out science has a lot to do with why.

This article explores the many factors that affect your level of attraction to other people.

Biological Factors That Affect Attraction

When you meet someone new, it might be difficult to discern why you find yourself attracted to (or not attracted to) them. However, studies show that biology has a lot to do with your level of attraction to someone else.

Adrenaline and Excitement

Let's talk about one of the cornerstone studies in the psychology field regarding attraction: The Love Bridge study. This study made the connection between arousal and attraction. In this study, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron had 85 men walk across either a scary suspension bridge or a sturdy regular bridge.

On the bridge, the men were approached by a female interviewer who asked them to fill out questionnaires in response to pictures. After each interview, she passed along her phone number. It turns out, people who were on the scary bridge were much more likely to call and put down sexual content and imagery on their responses to the questionnaire. This is an example of the misattribution of arousal.

In other words, they were excited about something, and that person was there for them to project their excitement on. Looking back, it's likely that the men just remembered feeling excited and then seeing a pretty woman.

Another studyshowed a photo of a moderately attractive person to people getting on or off of a roller coaster. They asked the people to rate the photo in terms of attractiveness and dating desirability. They were also asked to rate their seatmate's desirability. The people getting off the roller coaster rated their seatmates higher in terms of attractiveness than those getting on the roller coaster.

Natural Scent

In addition to adrenaline, studies have found that smell plays a role in attraction. For example, after being asked to smell different t-shirts worn by men, women actually chose the shirts of men whose genes signified their immune systems were different from their own. Then, of course, there's always the case for pheromones, which is a natural scent that your body produces.

Psychological Factors That Affect Attraction

Aside from biology, psychology plays a role in how attractive you perceive someone else to be.

Mood

Justin Lehmiller, PhD, a social psychologist, notes that people tend to be drawn to partners who are psychologically similar to themselves. He expands on this by saying that mood can impact the level of attraction you feel toward someone.

For example, if you've just received great news, you're more likely to like the next person you meet more than you normally would. This, Lehmiller says, can impact whether or not you're likely to develop an attraction to them.

Attachment Style, Values, and Emotions

Patrick Wanis, PhD, human behavior and relationship expert, says that attachment styles can also greatly impact attraction. On his blog, he suggests that “we subconsciously become attracted to people who will reflect and reinforce our beliefs and expectations about caring, trust, abandonment, dependence, support, intimacy, vulnerability.”

Wanis also believes that people search for partners with similar values and beliefs and people at similar life stages.

Another study supported the idea that people look for similarities in terms of attraction. It found that people were more drawn to others whose emotions and motivations felt familiar.

The study had people watch others as they experienced different emotions. It found that they were more likely to be attracted to people whose emotions they could understand without it being explicitly stated.

Winning Someone Over

Finally, while everyone can agree that it's nice to be liked, one study found that people also like the idea of winning someone over. The study asked co-ed students to eavesdrop on their partner and another group.

While they liked it when they found out that their partner had a positive impression of them, they actually liked it even more when they found out that the person's impression of them had started negatively and turned positive. This way, the person felt like their partner's feelings were more indicative of their true feelings about their personality.

Other Factors

While you can't control biological and psychological factors, there are some things you have a bit more control over in terms of how attractive you find other people. Here are a few of those factors.

Location

Where you live can impact your level of attraction to others in terms of proximity to people and access to different types of people. This can be as simple as who is available at the moment (think of your neighbor from the college dorm).

One study showed that women from healthier countries preferred men with more feminine qualities, whereas women from developing nations preferred men with more traditionally masculine features. The study actually found that across 30 countries, as the country's health decreased, the preferences for masculinity increased.

Scarcity

Lehmiller also references the idea of scarcity and uses the example of the "closing time effect," which suggests that people at a bar will rate other patrons as more attractive the closer they get to closing time. Basically, the more limited the options become, the more likely people are to settle for whatever is available at the time.

Familial Relationships

Of course, physical preferences can be shaped by past experiences with similar-looking people, as well as a person's relationship with their family. In other words, if you grew up in a home with a father who was more traditionally masculine, that may be what you consider attractive if you have a good relationship with your father. To you, masculinity may also denote kindness and acceptance.

A Word From Verywell

While there have been lots of studies on what people find attractive, a big part of it is still dependent on your personal preferences and past experiences. If you are currently looking for a partner, I hope this encourages you as opposed to discouraging you. Think of it this way: biology takes care of a lot of the heavy lifting for you, if you are willing to pay attention to it.

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