The Psychology of Attraction: This is Why You Like Who You Like

You walk into the bar, catch their eye, and it’s all over: racing heart, sweaty palms, excitement in your stomach. These are signs of attraction, but what makes our bodies react like this to one person instead of another? What makes someone attractive to us? And us to someone else?

Scientists, for decades, have tried to find the answer to the question: Why are we attracted to certain people? While the psychology of attraction is different for everyone, there are reasons why some people get our hearts pumping and others simply don’t.

Disclaimer: we’re more like animals than we like to think…

Romantic couple in the kitchen

What makes someone attractive: 9 reasons why you just can’t get that stranger out of your head.

1. Their smell (and we’re talking about more than perfume).

They nudge past you on the train and, what’s that? A whiff of pheromone in the air?

Yep! It is true that perfumes and aftershaves can make you seem more attractive, but in terms of smell, physical attraction goes deeper than that. Pheromones are hormones that are secreted outside the body (through saliva and sweat) that can be sensed by, and affect the behavior of, those around us. If you’ve found yourself instantly physically attracted to someone (especially someone you don’t find appealing on any other level), it could be pheromones at work.

It’s also true that we are physically attracted to some people’s pheromones and not others. Why? Some scientists argue we’re attracted to the smell of people with a different immune response to us, as this would benefit our future offspring.

Man sniffing his t-shirt

2. The psychology of attraction depends on your time of the month.

Sometimes what makes someone attractive depends on your time of the month. Women are probably more familiar with hormonal changes than men, having experienced years of the effect of a period on their emotions, and, importantly, their libido. Wondering why you want to rip off your clothes and run naked into the street in search of a lover? Ovulation!

Scientists have found that not only are women more frisky when ovulating, they are also more attracted to men with typically masculine features (such as a deep voice and broad shoulders). On top of this, a recent study got heterosexual men to sniff women’s t-shirts and found their testosterone levels were raised by, and they were more drawn to, the t-shirts of ovulating women. The psychology of attraction literally changes at different times of the month!

Young woman biting her lip

3. Why are we attracted to certain people? Because they’re there.

Ever wondered why so many famous co-stars hook up? Proximity! Research shows that the more you see someone, the more likely you are to be attracted to them. Of course, other psychology of attraction factors will be at play here (there are some people you’ll never fancy, and that’s that).

Wondering how to close the deal with the person you flirted with at the start of the party? Wherever they are, be there. Not in a stalky way, of course.

Couple flirting at work

4. Are they wearing red? Jackpot.

It’s the color of love and passion for a reason. Research has consistently shown that both men and women find people more attractive when they’re wearing red. It’s argued this is because it is culturally a color associated with romance (just think about Valentine’s Day) but also with bodies and sex, because it makes us think of genitalia and blood flowing around our body - like it does when we’re turned on.

Young woman in red dress

5. What makes someone attractive? They’re opposite to you! (But also, they’re similar to you..)

Some research shows that, in terms of biology and evolution in the psychology of attraction, choosing a partner genetically opposite from us increases our chance for survival and diversifies the qualities of our future offspring. Another study had these same findings and found that we can detect this kind of desirable genetic blueprint in a partner through our scent and brain.

On the other hand, there are strong arguments that we are attracted to people with similar interests and a similar background to us. When you think about your partner being someone you spend a lot of time with, this makes total sense. When someone shares our views and hobbies we feel good about ourselves, think more of them, and want to spend time sharing these interests with them!

Happy couple on the sofa

6. They liked you first!

Yes, what makes someone attractive is sometimes as simple as them liking you first. As much as people talk about “playing hard to get”, recent studies show that we’re far more likely to feel attracted to someone if we know they’re attracted to us.

This is partly because we feel flattered and positive towards them, our ego is pleased, and we want their attention to continue. This is also partly because when we find out someone fancies us it makes us look at them differently - as more than a friend.

Man giving woman heart-shaped lollipop

7. The psychology of attraction: fertility and beauty go hand in hand.

Evolution and biology are frequently referenced when it comes to attraction, because for most humans, beauty, health, and fertility are intrinsically linked. Most of us are attracted to symmetry because this suggests a person is healthy and fertile, as do characteristics like good skin, shiny hair, and bright eyes.

One study found that heterosexual men’s brains lit up when they saw a woman with big boobs, butt, and hips - similar to the brain’s activity when drinking alcohol. This is said to be because these features signal high levels of estrogen, consequently fertility.

Similarly, heterosexual women have found to be typically attracted to men with “alpha male” characteristics, such as a muscular frame, square jaw, and a decisive, confident personality. Again, biologically, these characteristics suggest a mate who is strong and with whom you could successfully reproduce. Our evolutionary instincts live on!

Happy woman with sunflowers in her hair

8. They look like the people we see in magazines.

Or whatever media we’ve consumed throughout your life!

The society we live in plays a big role in what makes someone attractive. If we see certain features being admired on television and in magazines (like the Western ideal of muscular men and very thin women), we become attracted to these qualities too.

This also plays into our inherent attraction to status. Why are rock-stars so damn hot? Partly because they’re talented, but partly because they are looked up to and adored by so many people, which makes them more attractive to us because getting their attention would be very satisfying for our ego.

Man plays guitar to his girlfriend

9. They look like your parents (sorry).

Psychology of attraction “experts” love to tell straight women they’ll end up with someone like their dad. And yes, it’s true that many of us are drawn to people who share characteristics with our parents.

Some argue this could be simply because we are drawn to what is familiar to us (which is also why we’re attracted to people who look similar to us) and also because we have positive emotional associations with our parents and their appearance, so it is natural to feel attracted to someone who reminds us of that.

Worried couple in bed

When it comes to the psychology of attraction, we’re at the mercy of lots of factors we have no conscious control over. But now that you know why you might be attracted to someone, we can move onto the more important question: what are you going to do about it?