Starting and keeping healthy relationships takes skill and hard work, but this doesn't necessarily come easily to us. Professor of Social Psychology Viren Swami has some fascinating insights about why.
Is it true that opposites attract? Or that playing hard to get will make you more alluring? Or that we each have a soulmate out there somewhere? Actually, none are true.
Professor Viren Swami has dedicated the last ten years to studying how people form relationships, and is an expert in the ‘science of attraction’, as well as in body image. “These ideas are indeed myths,” he says. “Almost a half of people believe that opposites attract. However, the evidence says that we prefer people similar to us”, he explains. “And as for playing hard to get, studies have shown that if I offer you something you really like – such as chocolate – but say you can’t have it for 20 minutes, when you do get it you’ll probably not like it as much as you would without the wait.”
“Almost a half of people believe that opposites attract. However, the evidence says that we prefer people similar to us.”
Viren’s work is about helping people form and maintain healthy, and equitable, relationships. “Many of us don’t have the skills to form good relationships, yet we tend to be mentally and physically healthier when we do.”
Viren is clear he is not a therapist: ”I study population trends, and don’t give individuals advice or therapy”. It is for this reason that he does not like to give rules or advice: ”I absolutely don’t give people ‘laws’ of attraction or fool-proof methods for getting someone to date you. I’m all about understanding how and why we behave the way we do, so that individuals can adapt this to their own circumstances. It’s science rather than self-help.”
Viren brings together principles that hold broadly true across most societies and are laid out in his book, Attraction Explained, published in 2015. They cluster around four main concepts.
These four theories are based on Viren’s own research and pulling together hundreds of pieces of research by other academics. But Viren is more than a theoretician. His latest project has been to run events, called Attraction Labs, that explain the science of attraction to groups of up to 100 people of an evening. They involve people of all genders and ages doing carefully-constructed activities: how to design a good chat up line, how body language and dance movements signal different things, or how sharing food can be a way to connect. To take an example, 'What is your favourite pizza topping?' is a very good chat-up line – because it pushes you into conversation, but is not threatening, and invites a question back. It also teaches about reciprocity, and asking open questions, whereas making closed statements is not good (eg 'My friend is a helicopter pilot').
I’m all about understanding how and why we behave the way we do, so that individuals can adapt this to their own circumstances.”
The Attraction Labs, organised by private company Guerrilla Science, have been run at all kinds of venues including the Shambala Festival, and co-funded and publicised by our University. “There is lots of science but also lots of laughter and they’re very informal. We have also recently run Queer Attraction Labs which have been very successful”.
In the pipeline are longer four-hour workshops that hope to actually improve people’s behaviour: how to show genuine interest in a conversation, how to read clues from another person, and how to manage online dating. There may also be ‘confessional booths’ where you can discuss specific problems with a therapist or scientist.
What is the greatest challenge of Viren’s research? “It’s that people want individual help, but I’m not trained to help them in that way. I got an email just this morning from someone whose relationship has broken down after four years. I do suggest they see a therapist but it’s really hard not to be able to help them.”
“But I will always have a coffee with them and sit and listen.”