Attraction, to a social psychologist, is any force that draws people together. Social psychologists have traditionally used the term attraction to refer to the affinity that draws together friends and romantic partners. However, many current researchers believe there are important qualitative differences among the forces that draw people into different types of relationships.
History of Attraction
Perhaps the most influential model of interpersonal attraction was the reinforcement-affect model. According to this model, attraction between people follows simple principles of classical conditioning, or associative learning. A person will come to like anyone associated with positive feelings (e.g., the waitress in a favorite restaurant) and dislike anyone associated with negative feelings (the traffic cop who writes the person a ticket for taking an illegal left turn). A corollary of this model is that the higher the ratio of positive to negative associations one has in a relationship with another person, the more he or she will like that person. In other words, a person will like the person who has provided him or her with three rewards and one punishment (for a ratio of .75 rewards) more than the person who provides him or her with six rewards and four punishments (yielding a lower overall ratio of .60, despite the higher total number of rewards). This corollary was studied by exposing research participants to other people who varied in their attitudinal similarity (on the assumption that meeting others who agree with them is rewarding).
Later research suggested a slight problem with this model, in that people generally tend to assume other people agree with them. Hence, the reward value of similarity is less than the punishment value of dissimilarity. Indeed, discovering that another person disagrees with one’s important values does seem to be particularly unpleasant, and people tend to dislike those who disagree with them (particularly when those disagreeing people are members of their own groups, who they are particularly likely to expect to be similar).
The reinforcement-affect theory is an example of a domain-general model of behavior. Domain-general models attempt to explain a wide range of behavior using one simple principle. In this case, the simple and general principle is this: People, like other animals, will repeat behaviors that are rewarding and will not repeat behaviors that are not rewarding. Another domain-general model attempts to explain attraction by referencing broad principles of social exchange. Social exchange theories presume that people are implicitly driven by economic principles: People choose behaviors that they expect to maximize their future benefits and minimize their future costs. This model differs from a reinforcement-affect model in presuming that people do not simply respond passively to past rewards and punishments, but instead make mental calculations, including estimations of who is likely to be a good bargain in a future relationship. For example, you might pursue a relationship with someone who has never rewarded you in the past, and in fact you might even be willing to pay some initial costs to meet that person, if you have knowledge that they might make a good friend or mate. On the other side, you might pass on a potential mate who has been very pleasant to you if you estimate that you could get a better deal with someone else. Some variants of social exchange models presume that people are uncomfortable with any relationship that is an unfair bargain, whether they are underbenefitted (getting less than they deserve) or overbenefitted (getting more than they deserve).
Problems with Traditional Domain-General Models of Attraction
Domain-general models tend not to be specific enough to predict which features or behaviors of another person will be attractive. What constitutes a general reward or punishment, or a general benefit or cost, for example? It turns out that, without further information, this is a difficult question to answer. Whether a kiss is a reward or a punishment depends on who is kissing whom (e.g., think about a person you find attractive as compared to an overly friendly but unattractive stranger at a bar). Furthermore, you may like someone quite well even when your relationship is very inequitable (a mother may tell you that she has never felt as positively toward anyone as her young baby, despite the fact that the baby tends to wake her with loud demands in the middle of the night and never even say “thank you”).
Domain-specific theories of attraction make more particular predictions about what will and will not be attractive, depending on the particular category of relationship between two people and on their particular goals at the time. Social psychologists have suggested several ways to functionally divide types of relationships. One evolution-inspired view presumes that there are a limited number of recurrent problems of social living that all human beings need to solve in their relationships with others. These include affiliation (maintaining a small group of close friends to share various tasks and rewards), status (getting respect from and power over other members of one’s group), self-protection (avoiding exploitation and harm from potential enemies), mate-search (choosing a desirable partner), mate-retention (holding onto a desirable partner), and kin-care (taking care of offspring and other close relatives). The rules of social exchange, and the particular content of rewards and punishments, are presumed to differ in important ways for people involved in these different kinds of interactions. For example, although you may keep close track of which friends do and do not pay their share of the restaurant bill, this type of accounting is much less likely to occur between children and their parents. For a man and a woman who have just begun dating seriously, on the other hand, it may be that the man desires to pay the bill to demonstrate his possession of resources and that the woman is content to allow him to pay so as to get a sense of his commitment and ability to provide resources. For most couples at the early phases of dating, the man is more likely than the woman to request initial sexual behavior and to regard it as a benefit obtained from the relationship.
Social psychologists have only begun to study the implications of domain specificity for attraction. As yet, there is more theory than data on the questions of (a) what it is people find rewarding and punishing in friends versus lovers versus family members, and (b) how people’s mental accounting differs for people involved in different types of relationships. Many social psychologists believe that the understanding of such processes will be enhanced by placing human attraction in the context of broad evolutionary principles derived from comparative studies of other animal species. Several such principles include differential parental investment (linked to the general tendency for offspring to be more costly for females than for males) and inclusive fitness (linked to an animal’s success at assisting its genes into future generations via reproduction and assisting its genetic relatives).
- Chen, F., & Kenrick, D. T. (2002). Repulsion or attraction: Group membership and assumed attitude similarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 111-125.
- Kenrick, D. T. (2006). A dynamical evolutionary view of love. In R. J. Sternberg & K. Weis (Eds.), The new psychology of love (pp. 15-34). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.