What Is Physical Attraction?

young couple kissing in the street

martin-dm/E+/Getty

What Is Physical Attraction?

When you’re scrolling through profiles on a dating app, the first thing you probably look at is the person’s picture. If they seem attractive to you at first glance, you may explore their profile further and then decide whether you want to communicate with them; however, if their picture doesn’t pique your interest in that split second, you probably move on to the next one.

Similarly, when you enter a room, such as a restaurant, bar, office, or conference room, you probably do a quick scan of the room. If someone seems physically attractive to you, your eyes may linger on them, or keep going back to them, and you may find yourself interested in what they’re doing or saying.

Physical attraction refers to the fact that an individual finds another person appealing, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University. “It is a physical energy that is the result of the chemistry between two people.”

Physical attraction is often instant, and it can contribute to feelings of excitement, increased energy levels, and craving for physical connection upon seeing someone for the first time. Instant physical attraction and ensuing emotional response are contributing factors to what people call “love at first sight.”

This article explores some of the factors that contribute to physical attraction, the signs of physical attraction, and the importance of physical attraction in relationships.

Factors That Contribute to Physical Attraction

These are some of the factors that play a role in physical attractiveness:

  • Facial features: According to a 2015 study, facial features and facial symmetry are the most important determinants of physical attractiveness.
  • Physical dimensions: Research studies also show that apart from facial features, other anthropometric factors such as physical dimensions and ratios play a role in physical attractiveness as well.
  • Facial expressions: The face typically plays the most important part in social interaction, making facial expressions another important component in physical attractiveness, according to a 2021 study. For instance, the study notes that smiling signals intelligence and trustworthiness and increases physical attractiveness.
  • Non-visual cues: A 2015 study shows that other non-visual cues such as voice and scent also contribute to physical attractiveness.

Evolutionary Factors

Evolutionary psychology has a controversial theory about physical attractiveness. It suggests that since physical attractiveness helps people attract mates, evolutionary factors play a role in what people consider attractive.

Evolutionary psychology studies note that physical features and dimensions that suggest youthfulness, physical health, mental and emotional well-being, strength, and fertility are considered physically attractive, since those are desirable qualities in a mate from a biological and reproductive standpoint.

For instance, evolutionary psychology studies conclude that a body mass index (BMI) and waist to hip ratio (WHR) within a particular range of those scales may be considered more attractive than a BMI or WHR outside those ranges.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age. Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

According to evolutionary researchers, this is because having too much body fat is associated with negative health outcomes such as heart disease, diabetes, and restricted movement; whereas, not having enough muscle and body fat is linked to a lack of strength and reduced fertility and child-bearing ability.

However, there is not always a correlation between what is the healthiest physiologically speaking and what people find the most attractive.

Sociocultural Factors

Factors such as society, culture, and historical period can also play a role in determining what’s considered attractive and unattractive. In other words, if a culture favors certain body types over others, individuals can be affected by these preferences.

People may internalize these standards and pursue them, sometimes to the detriment of their health or well-being. For instance, they may pursue a BMI that is below what is considered healthy, in order to meet sociocultural standards of size.

One study found that participants perceived as more attractive women with low and physiologically unhealthy BMIs compared to women with healthy BMIs. Another study found that participants from urban areas thought images of women with lower BMIs were more attractive compared to participants from rural areas who felt women with higher BMIs were more attractive.

Weight stigma and the thin ideal can play a role in determining what people view as attractive and unattractive regardless of what is physiologically healthy.

Signs of Physical Attraction

Physical attraction is characterized by physiological changes in the body, such as a release of the chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, says Dr. Romanoff. “Attraction also activates the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, which is the part of your brain that processes sensory rewards.” These physiological changes can trigger emotional and behavioral changes.

These are some of the signs of physical attraction, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Smiling when around the person
  • Maintaining prolonged eye contact with them
  • Feeling nervous at the prospect of interacting with them
  • Unconsciously mirroring their body movements, expressions, speech, and postures
  • Having reduced appetite and difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling unsteady, ecstatic, and animated

Physical Attraction and Relationships

Physical attraction is an important component in romantic relationships. It is often the starting point of relationships, helping people connect with each other and build an emotional attachment.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Physical attraction is important because it leads to greater physical intimacy and connection, helping partners feel more bonded and attached to each other.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Physical attraction also helps people maintain relationships. According to a 2015 study, being physically attracted to one’s partner is linked to greater marriage satisfaction and longevity.

However, relationships shouldn’t be based on physical attraction alone. Couples should have a strong and widespread foundation for their relationship—this includes an alignment of values, goals, and priorities, says Dr. Romanoff. “If partners are not connected in these other realms, their physical attraction might not be able to sustain a more serious relationship.”

A Word From Verywell

Physical attraction is often a primal, instinctive reaction to another person, based on factors such as their appearance, expressions, voice, and scent. While physical attraction is one aspect of being in relationship, it is also important to consider and build upon shared values such as trust, compassion, respect, and honesty.

Was this page helpful?
14 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Seidman G, Miller OS. Effects of gender and physical attractiveness on visual attention to Facebook profiles. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2013;16(1):20-24. doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0305

  2. Grant-Jacob JA. Love at first sight. Front Psychol. 2016;7:1113. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01113

  3. Muñoz-Reyes JA, Iglesias-Julios M, Pita M, Turiegano E. Facial features: what women perceive as attractive and what men consider attractive. PLoS One. 2015;10(7):e0132979. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0132979

  4. Garza R, Heredia RR, Cieslicka AB. Male and female perception of physical attractiveness: an eye movement study. Evol Psychol. 2016;14(1):147470491663161. doi:10.1177/1474704916631614

  5. Horn S, Matuszewska N, Gkantidis N, Verna C, Kanavakis G. Smile dimensions affect self-perceived smile attractiveness. Sci Rep. 2021;11:2779. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-82478-9

  6. Groyecka A, Pisanski K, Sorokowska A, et al. Attractiveness is multimodal: beauty is also in the nose and ear of the beholder. Front Psychol. 2017;0. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00778

  7. Ward A, English T, Chin M. Physical attractiveness predicts endorsement of specific evolutionary psychology principles. PLoS One. 2021;16(8):e0254725. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0254725

  8. Lassek WD, Gaulin SJC. Do the low whrs and bmis judged most attractive indicate higher fertility? Evol Psychol. 2018;16(4):147470491880006. doi:10.1177%2F1474704918800063

  9. Maymone MBC, Neamah HH, Secemsky EA, Kundu RV, Saade D, Vashi NA. The most beautiful people. JAMA Dermatol. 2017;153(12):1327-1329. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2017.3693

  10. Brierley ME, Brooks KR, Mond J, Stevenson RJ, Stephen ID. The body and the beautiful: Health, attractiveness and body composition in men's and women's bodiesPLoS One. 2016;11(6):e0156722. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0156722

  11. Swami, V. and Tovee, M.J. 2005. Female physical attractiveness in Britain and Malaysia: a cross-cultural studyBody Image. 2(2):115-128.doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2005.02.002

  12. Shen H, Chau DKP, Su J, et al. Brain responses to facial attractiveness induced by facial proportions: evidence from an fMRI study. Sci Rep. 2016;6:35905. doi:10.1038/srep35905

  13. Bolmont M, Cacioppo JT, Cacioppo S. Love is in the gaze: an eye-tracking study of love and sexual desire. Psychol Sci. 2014;25(9):1748-1756. doi:10.1177/0956797614539706

  14. Meltzer AL, McNulty JK, Jackson G, Karney BR. Sex differences in the implications of partner physical attractiveness for the trajectory of marital satisfaction. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2014;106(3):418-428. doi:10.1037/a0034424

Additional Reading