The science of attraction

Author says what people find attractive is a complex cocktail of biology and environment that is almost certainly unique to each individual

Scientific study may have determined much of the biology and psychology behind human attraction

Ask random people on the street (like we did) about what they find attractive and the answers are rather predictable.

Confidence, attention to personal presentation and a ready smile all received prominent mention.

But as everyone who has ever experienced a love unrequited can tell you, these factors aren’t the be-all-and-end-all. While certain scientific truths formed through evolution underpin the art of attraction, other environmental factors mean people’s love choices will be as unique they are.

In his 2010 book In Your Face: The New Science of Human Attraction, Scottish psychology professor David Perrett states attraction is unavoidably personal.

“Our individual experience of being attracted to someone, while it can often take us by surprise and seem overwhelming and irrational, nevertheless reflects the conscious and unconscious working of our own brains,” he writes.

Several studies  have demonstrated people consciously or unconsciously look for signs of societal dominance, healthy genes and shared personal values and interests — qualities that ultimately should increase our offspring’s chances to succeed.

Our Vancouver Island random street survey reflected that, although participants expressed those feelings in much more general terms:

Kevin Radford said big, bright eyes and long shiny hair — each an indicator of good health — typically caught his attention.

Claire Leversidge said she takes note of the way a person confidently scans a room and moves comfortably around it — signs of societal dominance.

Brian Starr and Rod Edgeworth pointed to how people dress and the way they present themselves, which can provide cues on personal values and compatibility.

And Kelly James talked about a sense of humour and a relaxed attitude which can indicate patience, sensitivity and long-term commitment.

Studies have indicated body types have significance in attraction; broad-shouldered v-shaped men and women with curvy hip-to-waist ratios get more attention because they are genetically more successful. Women and men also prefer men to be taller than their partner.

But Perrett’s work is based on his study of faces and the ways people react to them.

Some of his findings simply confirm the obvious. Others are surprising.

  • Yes, the symmetry of a face — an universal indicator of beauty — is important. But just as powerful is how ‘average’ a face is, meaning how well that face reflects proportions we find familiar and comfortable.
  • Femininity is universally admired. Masculinity is more desirable to women seeking to bear children, less to women seeking to raise them.
  • Our attractiveness dwindles as we age, but the decline starts earlier than you might think. Peak cuteness arrives at about eight months and how attractive we are as babies has influence on our attractiveness as we grow older.
  • Looking the part is important. Our facial structure and the moods we project shapes how others react to us, which shapes how we react to them, which shapes how they perceive us.
  • Provided there is a loving bond between parent and child, we are subconsciously attracted to faces which resemble our parents.
  • We are influenced by the faces our friends find attractive, as well as those the media portrays as attractive.

Perrett said his motivation for writing his book is to demonstrate that while general rules exist for attraction, different people find different faces attractive and there are scientific reasons why.

“Not everyone focuses on the same cues when deciding who has an attractive face,” he writes. “Facial attraction is personal — and…heavily influenced by each of our unique upbringings, our experiences as well as our own appearance.”