New book debunks myths of attraction

Published: 19 January 2016 at 15:19

Holding hands

Attraction Explained by Professor Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin is out this week

A new book published this week [Thursday, 21 January] reveals the scientifically-proven factors that shape the formation of relationships.

Attraction Explained (Routledge, £16.99) by Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, debunks some of the “theories” pedalled by self-help guides and self-styled pick-up artists.

Professor Swami shows that modern-day myths of attraction, such as “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” have no basis in fact.  Instead, his extensive research shows that geographic proximity, physical appearance, personality, and reciprocity are all key reasons that affect who we fall for.

Geographic proximity
“Most partners are found at very short distances and the further away two people live, the less likely they are to form a relationship.  A study in the Netherlands in 2004 found that half of people who had recently moved in together met their partners within a four-mile radius.  

“Internet dating has changed where we meet potential partners, but even online we favour people who are geographically close.  As well as making dating more convenient, we are attracted to people who are similar to us, and similar people are more likely to live nearby. 

“I carried out a study where we recruited participants from each of London’s 33 boroughs.  Each participant was asked to complete a short questionnaire in which they rated how attractive they thought women and men in each of the boroughs were.

“We found that people in some boroughs were rated as more attractive – the City of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea came top, while residents of Bromley were rated the least attractive.  In general, people from richer boroughs were rated as more attractive than those from poorer boroughs.  

“However, what was most interesting was the fact that when participants were more familiar with a borough, they rated its residents as more physically attractive.  The further away a borough was from a participant’s place of residence, the less attractive they believed residents of that borough were.”

Appearance does matter
“Studies suggest it takes less than a second to form first impressions about other people, including how attractive we think they are.  The speed at which we form impressions suggests these judgements are made automatically, possibly outside of our consciousness.  

“And these first impressions are heavily shaped by a person’s physical appearance.  In online dating studies, physical appearance is the strongest predictor of whether two people would like to meet again for both women and men, while a study by the University of Innsbruck shows we are far more likely to befriend an attractive person on Facebook.

“I carried out a study that may shock you.  Imagine you’re walking along a street, when all of a sudden you witness a traffic accident.  There are two victims, both of whom have suffered injuries that require immediate attention, but there’s one difference.  You find one victim more physically attractive than the other. 

“I’m sure you’re thinking that the victims’ physical appearance would have very little to do with who you help first, but let me tell you that it probably does.  In our study we found that people were more likely to indicate they would help someone they perceived as being attractive compared to less attractive victims.”

“The University of Canterbury in New Zealand carried out a study asking people to list characteristics desired in a romantic partner.  For both sexes, personal characteristics linked to warmth, intimacy, and loyalty were rated the most important traits, while those related to status and resources were rated the least important.  

“So this flies in the face of a common stereotype that, far from desiring niceness, women actually end up dating ‘bad boys’.  When rating hypothetical partners, women seem to prefer men who are easy-going, warm, sensitive – read ‘nice’ – but also confident.  

“I carried out a study asking women to view different video recordings of the same man entering a room, sitting down, and beginning a conversation with people just out of frame.  In the first recording, the man performed ‘closed-body’ movements – arms folded across his chest and legs close to the chair.  

“In an alternative film he performed ‘open-body’ movements – arms stretched out, legs partially open, gesticulating and making physical contact with one of the people out of frame.  When asked to rate the man for attractiveness, he scored more highly amongst the women who saw him demonstrate the more confident, ‘open-body’ movements.”

“There are lots of good reasons why we like people who like us.  For one thing, knowing that I’m liked makes me believe that I must have some likeable qualities.  In this sense, reciprocal liking is an important tool that helps to maintain a person’s self-esteem.

“In non-romantic interactions, expressing a platonic liking for lots of other people should result in reciprocal liking.  But in romantic relationships, this could suggest a lack of discernment or, worse, desperation. 

“To test this, Dr Paul Eastwick of the University of Texas examined the impact of selectivity in a speed-dating scenario.  Participants completed ‘interaction records’ after each date and said whether they wanted to see any date again.  They rated how attracted they were to their partners and how much chemistry they felt with each one. 

“They found if a partner uniquely desired a particular person, then attraction tended to be reciprocal.  In other words, a participant’s unique and selective desire for a date predicted the partner’s experience of unique attraction and chemistry with the participant. 

“In contrast, participants who desired lots of other dates tended not to be desired in return. In fact, a tendency to like everyone resulted in lower reports of attraction and chemistry toward that participant.”

Ahead of Valentine’s Day, Professor Swami will be giving a special talk – Attraction Explained: the science of how we form relationships – on Wednesday, 10 February.

The event begins at 6.30pm at Anglia Ruskin University’s Cambridge campus, with a drinks reception from 6pm.  For further details, please email