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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Things that Effect Our Attractiveness

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Situational Effects and Attraction

Are there any situational effects that determine our attraction to someone?


Absolutely yes and that can be very powerful. I will review eight of these factors here, and as you’ll see, they underscore the fact that physical attractiveness is a fluid construct, making it impossible to conclude that two people with the exact same physical features are even moderately similar to each other in perceived physical attractiveness. Our preferences for looks often depend on more than just what’s right in front of our eyes.

1. We find people who are familiar to us to be more physically attractive than those who are not familiar to us (16). Familiar people seem “safe” and it’s only natural to develop some degree of physical attraction towards such people. From an evolutionary sense, it’s also highly adaptive to form relationships with people with whom we feel safe, as opposed to people with whom we feel anxious, apprehensive or in danger.

2. People who are in close proximity to us are more physically attractive to us than those who are not in close proximity. Research shows that merely being in the same general vicinity as another person can increase our over all liking for that person. The longer that two people are in close proximity, the greater the chance that they will end up liking each other. This classic principle is called the “mere exposure” effect (15,16).

3. Related to the above, people who are in our immediate focus of attention tend to be perceived as more physically attractive than those not in our immediate focus.

4. People who are similar to us in terms of our personal characteristics and attitudes are often seen as more physically attractive as people who are dissimilar to us (1,9). However, it’s important to note that the principle of similarity (“birds of a feather flock together”) in romantic relationships is also an oversimplification. The degree of similarity observed actually depends on the particular individual-difference domain studied, with romantic partners showing strong similarity in age, political and religious attitudes; moderate similarity in education, general intelligence and values; and little or no similarity in personality characteristics (10,13). Moreover, dissimilarity of partner’s characteristics (“opposites attract”) can also play an important role in romantic relationships. In fact, the latest cutting-edge research suggests that it takes both components for a couple to experience the highest levels of relationship quality (5,6,11).

5. Our friends may come to be more physically attractive to us over time (4). From an evolutionary perspective, this could be adaptive in that friends are strong and reliable, and, therefore, more likely than other people to be good providers for our children. The other part of the explanation here is cognitive; we interpret the fact that we spend so much time with a particular friend as a sign that we are actually physically attracted to them.

6. People with positive personal qualities are seen as more physically attractive than people with less positive personal qualities (4). In fact, we may minimize or completely overlook physical imperfections in people whose personal qualities we like.

7. People with whom we have experienced something emotional or physically arousing are often perceived as more attractive than they were before such an experience (3). For instance, if you have just had a really deep “heart-to-heart” with someone, that person may seem more physically attractive to you than before the conversation. On a more dramatic level, imagine enduring a traumatic situation with someone. As the hours go by, you start to find the other person increasingly physically attractive. This is due not only to the familiarity that results from being next to that person, but also the emotional energy that is created by the situation. More importantly, you come to interpret the physical arousal caused by the situation as a sign that you are actually physically (sexually) attracted to that person – for instance “My heart was racing when I was in the room with her. I guess that means I actually find her attractive.”

8. The contrast effect is also important. If we have recently seen a physically unattractive person, everyone we see afterwards seems more attractive (more so than they would have seemed had we seen the less attractive person beforehand). Similarly, if we have recently been exposed to a particularly attractive person (either in person or media), we’ll find that the people we used to consider physically attractive are no longer as attractive (7,8,14). Note, however, that the contrast effect is temporary. Interestingly, contrast effects also apply to self-evaluations of our own physical attractiveness (2,12).


1 Beaman, A.L., & Klentz, B. (1983). The supposed physical attractiveness bias against supporters of the women’s movement: A meta-analysis. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 9, 544-550.

2 Brown, J.D., Novick, N.J., Lord, K.A., & Richards, J.M. (1992). When Gulliver travels: Social context, psychological closeness, and self-appraisals. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 62, 717-727.

3 Dutton, D.G., & Aron, A.P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517.

4 Gross, A.E., & Crofton, C. (1977). What is good is beautiful. Sociometry, 40, 85-90.

5 Houran, J., Lange, R., Rentfrow, P. J., & Bruckner, K.H. (2004). Do online matchmaking tests work? An assessment of preliminary evidence for a publicized “predictive model of marital success”. North American Journal of Psychology, 6, 507-526.

6 Houran, J., Lange, R., Wilson, G., & Cousins, J. (2005, May 28). Redefining compatibility: Gender differences in the building blocks of relationship satisfaction. Poster presented at the 17th annual convention of the American Psychological Society, Los Angeles, CA.

7 Kenrick, D.T., Gutierres, S.E., & Goldberg, L.E. (1989). Influence of popular erotica on judgments of strangers and mates. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 159-167.

8 Kenrick, D.T., Neuberg, S.L., Zierk, K.L., & Krones, J.M. (1994). Evolution and social cognition: Contrast effects as a function of sex, dominance, and physical attractiveness. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 210-217.

9 Klentz, B., Beaman, A.L., Mapelli, S.D., & Ullrich, J.R.(1987). Perceived physical attractiveness of supporters and nonsupporters of the women’s movement: An attitude-similarity-mediated error (AS-ME). Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 13, 513-523.

10 Klohnen, E.C., & Mendelsohn, G.A. (1998). Partner selection for personality characteristics: A couple-centered approach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 268-278.

11 Lange, R., Jerabek, I., & Houran, J. (2004, April 11-12). Building blocks for satisfaction in long-term romantic relationships: Evidence for the complementarity hypothesis of romantic compatibility. Paper presented at the Annual Adult Development Symposium, preconference of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.

12 Thornton, B., & Moore, S. (1993). Physical attractiveness contrast effect: Implications for self-esteem and evaluation of the social self. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 474-480.

13 Watson, D., Klohnen, E.C., Casillas, A., Nus Simms, E., Haig, J., & Berry, D.S. (2004). Match makers and deal breakers: Analyses of assortative mating in newlywed couples. Journal of Personality, 72, 1029-1068.

14 Weaver, J.B., Masland, J.L., & Zillman, D. (1984). Effect of erotica on young men's aesthetic perception of their female sexual partners. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 58 (3), 929-930.

15 Zajonc, R.B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 9, 1-27.

16 Zajonc, R.B. (1970, February). Brainwash: familiarity breeds comfort. Psychology Today, 3, 32-35, 60-64.

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