The Science of Attraction

Attraction is highly valued in society and although body trends change every decade, the ‘ideal face’ has mostly remained. Studies show that similar facial features are considered ‘beautiful’ in many parts of the world. But how much do we know about attraction?

Story by Eliza Freeman

Psychologist Josef Vuister explains attraction can be explained through simple theories like the Evolutionary Theory of Attraction. “We are attracted to individuals who display traits that are associated with survival and reproductive fitness”, Vuister says. Studies have shown that the human brain holds separate facial preferences for men and women and across most cultures these ‘attractive’ features are mostly similar. For women, it’s small noses, widely separated eyes, strong and narrow cheekbones, full lips, and luscious hair. For men, it’s often the opposite: small eyes, strong nose and jawline, thin lips, and bushy brows. However, there are key traits that apply regardless of gender. These traits are linked to the Evolutionary Theory of Attraction and include a symmetrical face, clear skin, white teeth and healthy hair – all signs that a person has healthy genes, which signal reproductive fitness.


According to the Oxford dictionary, attraction can be defined as the action or power of evoking interest in or liking someone or something.

Symmetry, why is it so desirable?

Symmetry – we all want it. Yet only 2% of the world’s
population has absolute symmetry. However, perfected
beauty isn’t as rare or unattainable as it used to be.
In a desperate attempt to achieve it, most women and
some men glam up every single day and many even undergo
expensive and invasive plastic surgery to attain the ‘perfect face’. But why is it so desirable?Research suggests that we have evolved to recognise symmetry as representing good genes and physical health. In fact, studies have shown that a well-proportioned face stands for perceived developmental stability as well as genetic quality and is, therefore, a better-developed immune system. Cosmetic surgery is especially popular among celebrities. A surgeon from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons claimed that 70% of celebrities have had some form of plastic surgery. This perceived image of the ideal face does not apply to most of the population, but thankfully, another key player in attraction is familiarity.


Women are more attractive to men when ovulating as it indicates high female fertility, ability to mate, and create off spring.

Familiarity: The Mere Exposure HypothesisA person’s repeated exposure to someone increases their perceived value and likability. This theory is known as the Mere Exposure Hypothesis. A study by Liverpool University found that the brain connects familiarity with attractiveness. By showing the participants a series of similar faces with widely-spaced eyes and then giving them two photos (one with widely-spaced eyes and one with narrow-spaced eyes) and afterward asking them to choose who was most attractive, the participants repeatedly choose the type of face they were exposed to more: the familiar face.Ultimately, this makes it easier to interpret and evaluate others as potential partners. Vuister says: “We are more attracted to familiar people because we have more certainty about how familiar individuals will act or behave.” However, if humans find familiarity so attractive, why do so many people dislike the appearance of the person they see the most: themselves?Why is it so hard to look in the mirror and like what you see?When it comes to our self-image, there is a number of factors that can influence our overall self-image. For instance, we tend to compare ourselves to others in an attempt to determine our own value. This ability to compare ourselves to others can cause us to evaluate ourselves negatively when our reference point becomes tangled up with the unrealistic expectations of beauty and attractiveness that our society promotes. Vuister says: “As humans, we tend to focus on what is wrong or missing, rather than what is right with us.” These two factors put together can cause people to become dissatisfied with their appearance.


All five senses are used when determining if someone is attractive. That’s why, if you see someone in a bar you like the look of, you want to approach so your nose can smell their pheromones.

Why is confidence so attractive?Despite all the physical factors, confidence is an attractive quality. It is related to high self values, but why do others care what you think of yourself? Authentic confidence is a signal that an individual has high social status, access to important resources, or is successful within their environment. These qualities can in turn signal that individual as being a suitable partner in terms of evolutionary survival and well-being.Some attributes, like the preference for full lips for women and thin lips for men, still remain a mystery. However, next time you’re sitting at the bar watching your best friend get hit on, you can think of this article and feel relieved that with the Evolutionary Theory of Attraction, attraction can be simplified to a set of hormonal reactions and our biological desire to recreate.