WHAT MAKES US ATTRACTIVE AND TO WHOM DO WE BECOME ATTRACTED?

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Whom do we really fall in love with?  And what makes us lovable?  Whether we have a partner or are looking for one, we all want to know why we are attracted to one particular person rather than another.

When we choose a partner, it often seems like love is blind.  It feels like we enter a relationship with blinders on—falling in love with whoever happens to be in close proximity to us (e.g. Tinder).  However, love is not blind, only a little myopic.  Moreover, this myopia is extreme at the time of the first encounter.  For love at first sight, the most important factor is the way we look, our physical attractiveness, as a study of preferences during a “hurry date” session showed.1 During the “hurry date” sessions men and women interacted with each other for three minutes and then indicated which of the people they met they preferred. Certainly, physical attractiveness can be important during the first encounter but, surprisingly, this factor is equally important to both men and women when selecting a sexual partner although men tend to put more of a premium on physical attractiveness when selecting a potential marital partner.2 Maybe that is why so many social media and matchmaking website descriptions and photos present a somewhat false front. 

It might be only a one-night hook-up that the most attractive women get because what predicted whether a couple would go out on even a second date, was a couples’ similarity in physical attractiveness rather than the degree of physical attractiveness.3 

If we want an attraction that lasts longer than just one evening, we look for one built on mutually perceived similarity.  After all, even two supremely attractive people can spend only so much time complimenting each other on their good looks.  The sexual attraction of the first encounter gives way to an attraction built on similar interests, values, and attitudes.4 Potential partners’ conversation quickly turns to fishing for what they have in common. 

The similarity we seek and that holds us together is in our image of ourselves.  We are attracted to people who are reflections of ourselves.  Indeed, a survey of people who married after initially meeting online found that those couples who had similar personalities were more satisfied with their relationship up to four years later.5 So physical beauty may attract the eye but personality attracts the heart.

  1. Kurzban, R. and Weeden, J. (2005). HurryDate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution & Human Behavior, 26, 3, 227-244.
  2. Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D. & Rottman, L. (1966), Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behavior,Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4,5, 508-516.
  1. Folkes, V.S. (1982). Forming relationships and the matching hypothesis. Social Psychology Bulletin, 8, 4, 631-636.
  2. Murstein, B. (1976). Whom will marry whom?: Theory and research in marital choice. New York: Springer, p. 180.
  3. Gonzaga, G.C., Carter, S. & Buckwalter, J.G. (2010). Assortive mating, convergence, and satisfaction in married couples, Personal Relationships, 17, 4, 634-644.

What Makes Men Addicted to Pornography and Women to Romance Novels (and Chocolate)?

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When we experience love at first sight, a chemical, phenylethylamine(PEA), floods the brain. PEA, an amphetamine-like chemical, makes us feel euphoric and aroused. Surprisingly, we don’t even need an actual person present to have a surge of PEA. This chemical increases even when we read a romance novel or see a sexy picture.1 Yes, it is the romance novel that turns on this amphetamine-like PEA substance for women and sexually explicit pornography that turns it on for men.2

PEA causes us to feel so good but it also can cause us to become addicted to whatever stimulates it.  Then, just as an addiction to amphetamines can induce cravings and withdrawal, we become dependent on seeking out whatever will increase our PEA.

Driven by this chemical hunger, we might even experiment with eating chocolate because chocolate contains PEA. Maybe this is why a box of chocolates is a romantic gift, in the hope that the surge of PEA will increase passionate feelings. Indeed, one study showed that participants indicated greater interest in initiating a relationship with a potential partner when exposed to a sweet taste.3 There is a downside, however.  Chocolate does contain PEA but the PEA is metabolized so quickly that it doesn’t have time to have much effect on the brain.4

  1. Crenshaw,T.L. (1996) The alchemy of love and lust. New York: G.P. Putman & Sons, pp. 55-62.
  2.  Ibid.
  3. Suzuki O, Katsumata Y, Oya M (1981). “Oxidation of beta-phenylethylamine by both types of monoamine oxidase: examination of enzymes in brain and liver mitochondria of eight species”. Journal of Neurochemistry.36 3, 1298–30.
  4. Dongning, R., Tan, K., Arriaga, X.B., Chan, K.Q. (2014). Sweet love: The effects of sweet taste experience on romantic perceptions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Published online October 21, 2014 doi:10.1177/0265407514554512.

So That’s Why I Fall in Love with the Wrong Person

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Blame it on the chemistry.  Yes, it is chemistry that causes you to fall in love with the wrong person. That tingly euphoric feeling that is there soon after you meet that special person comes from a surge of dopamine that makes you feel so good but it also impairs your judgment.1   You then become obsessed with having the high that comes from every text, every moment with your loved one.

Yet, you aren’t really experiencing the totality of your loved one—you are experiencing only the ecstatic feeling when you are connected with him/her.  And, like any addict, you need increasing amounts and doses of dopamine in order to continue to feel the ecstasy.  What you are experiencing is “romantic intoxication”.2 Then, when your partner does not instantly reply to a text or isn’t available for an entire day, you start experiencing withdrawal.  So you frantically try to reestablish the connection as soon as possible.  At this point you don’t love the person—you love the ecstatic feeling.  And you will do anything to be with that person, even if it is the wrong one.

  1. Doidge, Norman (2007) The brain that changes itself. N.Y.: Penguin Books, p. 115.
  2. Liebowitz, M. (1983). The chemistry of love. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.