The Real Rules of Attraction
Turns out, your brain is playing matchmaker.
Who is the most beautiful woman in the world? A few years ago, perception researchers from the University of Toronto and St. Andrew’s University announced that they had the definitive answer. Surprisingly, the winner of the scientific beauty pageant wasn’t a supermodel or a movie star, but rather Canadian-born country singer Shania Twain.
As it turned out, Twain was the celebrity who conformed most precisely to a set of ideal facial measurements. The scientists developed those standards by taking a generic female face and using Photoshop to tinker with its proportions, and then showing the various results to volunteers. Through the survey, the researchers discovered that the distance between the ideal woman’s eyes and mouth is 36 percent of the overall length of her face from hairline to chin. Similarly, her pupils should be precisely 46 percent of the width of her face from ear to ear.
Even more intriguing is the researchers’ explanation for why the volunteers preferred those proportions. Those facial ratios also happen to be the average of all female faces. Thus, the most beautiful woman in the world essentially is just the typical woman, to an extreme of precision.
But that raises other questions. Why do we find symmetrical features attractive? And what is it that happens in our brains to make us feel enamored of a certain person, as opposed to every other member of his or her gender? In this article, we’ll delve into the neuroscience of attraction, and look at how our brain processes sensory information and evaluates our perceptions to decide who we think is a babe or a hunk. We’ll also look at the extent to which attraction is hard-wired into our brains by evolution, and what influence is played by environment or personal variations on preference.
The Anatomy and Physiology of Attraction
When we look at someone, our brain almost instantly decides whether that person is a hottie or a nottie. Princeton University psychologist Alex Todarov, who has studied humans’ processing of faces, has found that we respond to them within a tenth of a second—so rapidly that the reasoning portion of our minds may not have time to influence the reaction. “It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way,” Todarov said in an article on Princeton University’s website.
Indeed, it’s almost impossible for us not to stare at an attractive person. A 2007 study by Florida State psychologist Jon Maner found that subjects fixed their eyes upon an attractive person within a second of first seeing them.
But although the process of attraction occurs in a flash, it’s also surprisingly complex. When we look at someone’s face, the visual information is processed in a specialized section of the brain called the fusiform gyrus, with the help of the superior temporal sulcus, an area which focuses on details such as our potential love object’s facial expression, and whether or not he or she is viewing us with a sultry gaze.
In a flash, that information is relayed to other parts of the brain that help us figure out how to feel. In a study published in 2012 in Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from Ireland’s Trinity College did brain scans of students who looked at photos of prospective romantic flames and then later got to meet them in person at a speed-dating event. Essentially, they found that when you have an immediate attraction to a person, two parts of a certain area of the brain—the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex—generally light up with neural activity. One is the paracingulate cortex, a region that makes calculations about the attractiveness of the person you’re gazing upon. The other part is the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, which compares your perception of attractiveness to other people’s reactions to the person. That’s the part of the brain that actually decides whether your potential love bunny is right for you, regardless of whether he or she appeals to your guy buddies or girl pals. When that happens, you’re most likely to trot out your best pickup lines or offer your phone number.
Interestingly, though, if you meet someone who by group consensus is exceptionally drop-dead gorgeous—say, a clone of Ryan Reynolds, or Rihanna—a third part of the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, will also kick into action. But even when it activates, you won’t necessarily pursue the object of your admiration. Apparently, that’s because the rostomedial prefrontal cortex cools your jets, warning you that the person is either unattainable, or that your own personal tastes are a little different.
Meanwhile, other parts of the brain also are reacting to that visual information about our possible love interest. A study by University College of London neuroscientists, published in the journal Neuropsychologica in 2007, found that the amygdala—a primitive area deep in the brain that helps trigger powerful emotions—also lights up when we see an exceptionally attractive person. The hypothalamus sends out a surge of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that not only creates a pleasurable sensation, but also increases our heart rate. So when we say that our true love makes our pulse flutter, we’re not that far from the truth.
What We Find Attractive, and Why
Despite the old saw that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, scientists have become pretty good at predicting what sort of physical appearance will push our buttons. In a study published in 2008 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brunel University evolutionary psychologist William Brown and engineering lecturer Jinsheng Kang used an optical 3-D scanner to measure the bodily proportions of various men and women, who were then rated by volunteers from the opposite gender for physical attractiveness.
Brown and Kang found that when we’re checking someone out, what we’re really looking for are signs of symmetry—that is, that a person’s body development is evenly balanced, which in living things generally is a sign of good health, robustness and good genes. Those are all qualities that were really important early in the history of humanity, when producing and raising offspring meant the difference between species survival and extinction. The problem is that since we have eyes instead of digital tape measures built into our heads, we can’t always see body symmetry clearly. So our brains take a shortcut, by looking for physical traits that are tipoffs—broad shoulders and a trim waist in a man, for example. The male evaluators were a bit less inclined to look for symmetry than their female counterparts; instead, they favored women who had more pronounced curves, a sexual characteristic that they associate with fertility.
While symmetry is a big deal in the world of romance, quantitatively speaking, there’s only a tiny amount of difference that separates attractive men, for example, from comparatively unattractive ones. In one study, University of New Mexico evolutionary biologists Randy Thornhill and Steven Gangestad measured the lengths and breadths of the body parts of 75 men, and then calculated the difference between the right and the left sides of their bodies. They then recruited women volunteers to rate the men’s attractiveness. The most desirable men had asymmetry of only one to two percent per body part, while the wallflowers averaged a five to seven percent difference.
With faces, which aren’t as big and complicated as bodies and are probably easier to evaluate, symmetry plays an even clearer role in helping us decide who is attractive. Across the web, you’ll find scores of articles about the so-called Golden Ratio—a measure of the distance between facial features, which works out roughly to a proportion of one-and-a-half times as long as wide.
In addition to symmetry, there are other facial characteristics that evolution has hard-wired us to see as attractive. Facial structure is influential, possibly because it gives an indication of a person’s hormonal levels. Estrogen, the female hormone that we associate with fertility, caps bone growth in a woman’s lower face and chin, making them relatively small compared to a man’s, and limits development of the brow, which in turn makes a woman’s eyes more prominent. The male hormone testosterone, in contrast, gives a man a relatively larger lower face and jaw and a more prominent jaw.
While much of attractiveness is visual, other senses figure into the process as well. The sound of a person’s voice, for example, is another quality that can influence us. In studies, women tend to find men with lower voices more attractive. Scientists believe that this is because a lower voice indicates a higher level of testosterone, which in a primitive world would translate into a man who was stronger, fitter and better suited to raise and protect a family of offspring. Men, in turn, tend to be drawn to a higher female voice, which indicates a youthful partner who would have a higher likelihood of carrying his progeny to term. Scientists also suspect that scent also plays a role in human attraction. But so far, they haven’t identified a human pheromone, or chemical signal, that has the same aphrodisiac potency as the androstenone and androstenol in the saliva of male boars, a whiff of which is enough to cause females to want to mate.
Are Looks Everything?
Physical attractiveness is important, and not just for finding a romantic partner. Human society, as it turns out, has a powerful bias in favor of those who are good looking. Research shows that we tend to perceive attractive adults as more social, successful, and well-adjusted than those who are more homely. A 2008 study found that good-looking interviewees got more lucrative job offers, and a study published in 2013 in Applied Financial Economics found that physically attractive real estate agents got to sell houses with higher prices, which led to higher commissions for them. A study published in International Journal of Press/Politics in 2010 found that better-looking politicians got more TV news coverage.
But looks aren’t the only thing that determines how we feel about other people, even when it comes to love and romance. A study by University of Iowa psychologist Eva C. Klohnen and graduate student Shanhong Luo, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2005, found that newlywed couples tended to share similar values, beliefs and attitudes.
And it’s possible for our brains to override our genetically pre-set attractiveness settings. A 2008 study by Florida State University psychologist Jon Maner found that students who had been prompted to think about their love for a partner were less distracted from a shape-identifying test when they were shown pictures of attractive strangers, compared to a control group. Maner noted that it was almost if they were “repelled, rather than grabbed” by the alluring faces. That study suggests that people who are in love with someone become blind to other potential mates, and thus stay loyal.
- Answer: 200%
- Answer: Happiness
- Answer: Pride
How To Be More Attractive
Four hot tips on attraction, courtesy of science.
In this episode, we learned that humans are hard-wired to find certain physical features attractive. Scientists theorize that we do so because earlier in the history of the human species, those characteristics indicated which potential sexual partners might be most able to produce and/or take care of offspring.
Now that we’re no longer living in caves and struggling for the survival of the species, having the ideal proportions or facial structure shouldn’t be as crucial as it once was. Even so, looks still have a powerful influence on everything from romance to job prospects and even which political candidates we support. The good news, though, is that experts say even if you have less-than-ideal looks, there’s plenty you can do to look more attractive.
Hang out in a group. According to a study published in 2013 in Psychological Science, people tend to be rated as more attractive when they’re part of a group than when they’re alone. And try to pick friends with diverse looks. The researchers suspect that when people have contrasting features—one person with wide-set eyes, another with narrow eyes—they’ll both enjoy a greater boost in perceived attractiveness when seen together, because they’ll tend to average out one another.
Get a lot of sleep. A 2010 study by Swedish and Dutch researchers found that subjects who were photographed after a good night’s sleep were rated more attractive by observers, compared to another group who were deprived of sleep.
If you’re a woman, wear makeup. A study by Harvard University researcher Nancy Etcoff, published in PLOS ONE in 2011, found that women who wore color cosmetics were rated significantly higher in attractiveness, competence, likability and trustworthiness by subjects who viewed their photos. As it turned out, minimal makeup was just as effective at promoting the positive effect as more dramatic, glamorous looks.
Keep smiling. If you’ve ever wondered why beauty pageant contestants seem unwilling to relax their effervescent grins for even a second, it’s because we all look more attractive when we smile. A 2010 study found that women who smiled when entering a bar, for example, were more likely to be approached by men than those who had a neutral expression.