Rules of Attraction
February 13, 2006
By Darragh Worland
So you’re single, you don’t look like a supermodel or a leading man, and you’re beginning to wonder if maybe you don’t have what it takes to snare the opposite sex. Do you have to be a perfect 10 to land a long-term valentine?
According to a recent survey by Playgirl Magazine, the answer, at least for men, is no. From chubby cuddlies to skinny rock star types, women find a broad range of physical types attractive and can easily love a man with love handles.
“If I lined up all of my boyfriends, no one would believe one woman dated them,” said Melissa Braverman, a 32-year-old single New York City travel publicist. “I’ve dated everything from short and slightly balding to 6 foot 3 and buff.”
While the Playgirl survey was hardly scientific, scientists and psychologists have actually been studying the rules of attraction for decades. They have found unequivocally that the very first flames of true love don’t usually ignite without a physical spark, but what sets the toes a-tingling is not only a matter of very individual taste, but can’t be defined or explained by society’s objective standards of physical beauty.
“Physical attraction is a big deal, whether people like to admit it or not,” said psychologist and marital counselor Dr. Willard F. Harley, whose bestselling book “His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage” outlines the 10 emotional needs that must be met to spark and sustain love.
However, one person’s dreamboat may be another’s shipwreck, and vice versa.
“Everybody I’ve ever counseled that is in love, finds their spouse to be particularly attractive,” Harley said. “Attractiveness is very idiosyncratic. I’ve counseled couples where one person is an absolute knockout and the other is ugly as sin, but the knockout perceives that person as very attractive to them.”
Science backs up Harley’s experience.
“We think attractiveness is a very basic part of the sex drive,” said Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of “Love and the Expansion of Self: Understanding Attraction and Satisfaction.”
“It’s not only a desire to have sex, but the focus of that drive on a specific individual what we normally describe as passionate love,” Aron continued.
Added Harley: “[Attraction] is the need that will get you to fall in love at first; then other emotional needs have to be met if there’s going to be more than infatuation.”
Though this is certainly good news for average Janes and Joes, it may not exactly reflect the experience of singles on the dating scene, where the perception is that being bufff and beautiful is the key to romantic success.
There is some truth in that reality, as well.
“Men are visual and they’re looking for the hottest woman they think they can get,” said dating coach David Wygant, the author of “Always Talk to Strangers” who can command up to $10,000 a weekend to coach men on how to find their dream woman. “Most men believe they should be with the Maxim cover girl.”
But even Wygent admits that few of his clients actually fall in love with the perfect 10 they’re after.
“I have seen many a guy describe their perfect girl and end up with someone who doesn’t even come close,” he said.
On the other hand, Harley said that while women may have in the past placed a lower priority than men on physical attractiveness, good looks are increasingly showing up in the top five needs for the women he counsels.
“Women are becoming more visual,” Harley said. “It’s possible women have been visual all along, but society has [repressed] that.
That means a woman looking to marry for financial stability may not need to find her husband attractive. But a woman looking to marry for romantic love is increasingly likely to put attraction near the top of her list.
Beauty vs. Attraction
But what about the whole idea of an objective standard of beauty that we’re all supposed to want – like that Maxim girl or that hunky Hugo Boss guy?
“What anthropologists have found is that if we were to go to the outback of New Guinea and pick out the prettiest face in village, the natives would agree with us. Standards of beauty stand, regardless of race,” said anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, author of “Why We Love.”
Fisher described the now-familiar theory of objective beauty anthropologists call “symmetry,” a universal aesthetic standard that can be calculated mathematically and has a lot to do with proportion and, well, symmetry.
“When the eyes are symmetrically apart, the nose not crooked, and the lips, chin, cheeks, all in a particular proportion,” we tend to label the person “attractive,” Fisher said.
But while the most symmetrical mammals are more likely to mate successfully, in humans, the brain actually makes “a distinction between wanting and liking,” she continued, meaning good looks don’t always equal love. Helen of Troy may have had a face that could launch a thousand ships, but she was hardly the only woman attracting and keeping mates.
According to Fisher, when we walk down the street and see a pretty face, or look at a picture of an attractive person, our brain registers that we ‘like’ the way they look. But when we look at a picture of the face of our beloved, our brain has a different reaction altogether, regardless of where that person ranks on the objective attractiveness scale.
In other words, liking is associated with objective beauty (our appreciation for Brad Pitt, say), but it’s attraction that makes us fall in love (with a lover who may look nothing like that bodacious Maxim girl).
“It’s a part of the brain that has to do with the reward and motivation system – meaning the other person is a goal to work toward, like food and water – [attraction] is a wanting,” said Dr. Lucy Brown, a professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City.
This wanting is provoked by the production of dopamine in a factory at the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental, in which there is a “laterization” – or a split – in terms of the functions between the right and left sides, as in the rest of our brain function (think right brain=creativity; left brain=logic), explained Fisher.
It’s the right side that registers a cocaine-like rush when we look at a picture of the face of our beloved, and it’s the left side that registers the objective beauty of the prettiest face in the New Guinea tribe.
“You want to be with someone who when you look at him, makes you feel good,” explained Harley.
Of course, romantic love isn’t the only kind of love our brain registers.
According to Fisher, there are three different brain systems associated with different kinds of affection: Lust, the powerful drive we feel to have sex with someone we may not love, is driven by the hormones testosterone and estrogen; passionate love is associated with dopamine and other neuro-transmitters; and attachment – the feeling we feel for a long-term spouse and our children – is associated with the bonding hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.
But, while you might develop an attachment to someone you aren’t attracted to – say, if you marry for money rather than love – unless you are attracted to the person and want and crave them physically in a way similar to the way you crave chocolate or water – you won’t fall in love.
Moreover, Fisher explained, “relationships tend to be more solid if there is a strong physical attraction.”
None of which explains exactly why we are attracted to one person over another, but researchers think it has to do with our personal history.
“Our experience has more to do with who we find attractive… But people who tend to be on the distant or avoidant end of the attachment scale,” tend to put a greater emphasis on their partner’s physical beauty, Brown said.
Avoidant personalities, Brown explained, can go long periods of time without seeing their beloved, such as those in long-distance relationships, or those with multiple partners.
But one thing is for sure. When it comes to love, it’s our brains and not our will that’s in the driver’s seat.
“We have very little control over who we fall in love with,” Aron said. “We can control what we do about it, but it’s hard to change who we’re attracted to.”