Building Attraction: Which Matters More, Looks or Personality?

There’s a lot of debate about building attraction when it comes to dating. One of the perennial debates is whether looks make a bigger difference than, say, one’s personality. It’s the Star Wars vs. Star Trek debates as both sides try to convince the rest of the world that the other are shallow homonculi or people deluding themselves about their chances.

Except, as it turns out, there’s actually an answer. One backed by science, in fact.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s a generally accepted truth that people who are conventionally physically attractive have an advantage when it comes to dating.

"Actually, it's a major inconvenience. You have no idea how troublesome it is having to handle women throwing themselves at me all the time."

“Actually, it’s a major inconvenience. You have no idea how troublesome it is having to handle women throwing themselves at me all the time.”

Not only do visual signs of health – clear skin, facial symmetry, etc. – stir certain instincts in us all but attractive people also benefit from the halo effect. Because they’re good looking, they’re also seen as being more trustworthy, kinder and smarter – all very attractive traits to have. And by virtue of being more attractive, they tend to have more attractive girlfriends and wives – after all, people tend to date other people at their “level” of attractiveness, no?

One would assume that the plain, even homely, people out there are for all intents and purposes, shit out of luck. If you’re not blessed with Tyson Beckford’s smile, Ryan Gosling’s dreamy eyes and Brad Pitt’s abs, you may as well just hope to find someone who’s willing to put up with you in order to avoid a life of desperate loneliness, right?

Well… not so much as it turns out.

In fact, the attractiveness of physical looks changes rather drastically over time. While being stunningly good looking helps with initial impressions, its value levels off very quickly and becomes much less important over the long term while other factors increase dramatically. While good looks certainly help, science has found that desirability and building attraction is about more than appearance.

So if you’re not the best looking man around, let’s talk a little about how one goes about building attraction over time.

Good Looks Vs. Personality

In evo-psych circles, a lot is made out of one’s “mating value” : that is, the aspects of attraction which are intrinsically based on certain favorable traits. Some, like financial success or social status, help ensure that any child will be raised successfully to adulthood. Others, like physical attractiveness and athleticism, are inheritable traits that help assure the child’s own reproductive success.

Except science has shown that this isn’t strictly true. In fact, UT Austin researchers Paul Eastwick and Lucy Hunt have found that it’s uniqueness that defines attractiveness over time rather than just looks or charisma. In their paper, Relational Mate Value: Consensus and Uniqueness in Romantic Evaluations, Eastwick and Hunt found that over time, who we consider attractive changes – people we may have seen as “alright” at first become far more appealing to us while people who are hot as a four alarm fire at first actually find that their advantages decline in importance.

In their paper, Eastwick and Hunt point out that in general, people tend to form a relatively uniform consensus1 about somebody’s appeal fairly quickly. For example: people would generally agree that Channing Tatum is a good-looking, charming guy for a potato. Jonah Hill is somewhat less so while Steve Buscemi is considerably less physically attractive.

A very charming 'tater indeed.

A very charming ‘tater indeed.

Based on these initial impressions, you would think that Tatum would be hands down the winner in any romantic contest, while Hill and Buscemi would be left to fight for the scraps of affection from any woman willing to have them like a pair of lonely methed-up gibbons with knives strapped to their arms. Except that’s not how relationships are formed. In fact, very very few people (between 6% – 11%)  fall in love at first sight or form a romantic relationship with someone they’ve recently met. In fact, a large proportion people in relationships or ongoing friends-with-benefits arrangements tend to have known each other for quite some time, from months to years.

Plus – as many people will no doubt rush to point out in the comments – they would much rather be with the scintillating (if less classically handsome) Jonah Hill or the talented Steve Buscemi than Mr. Tatum, no matter how good he looks shirtless and buttered up like an ear of corn… which is precisely where that “uniqueness” factor comes in. Someone – many people, really – may think that Channing Tatum is good looking but dull as a brick, while Jonah Hill can consistently make her laugh and feel good about herself. Other people may find Hill’s humor grating and prefer Steve Buscemi’s understated talent and presence.

So when you put the “traditionally attractive” traits in competition with “uniqueness”, which wins out?

In their piece in the New York Times Eastwick and Hunt write:

For one of our studies, we recruited 129 heterosexual individuals across several small undergraduate classes. These individuals indicated, at both the beginning and the end of the semester, the extent to which the opposite-sex students in their class possessed a set of desirable qualities. We found that consensus dropped and uniqueness increased as these students got to know one another over time. After three months, uniqueness dominated consensus for all desirable qualities: attractiveness, vitality, warmth, potential for success and even the ability to provide a satisfying romantic relationship.

(Emphasis mine.)

In fact, amongst people who know us well, that consensus on whether someone was attractive or not disappears entirely.

In a related study of approximately 350 heterosexual individuals, we collected these same measures in networks of opposite-sex friends, acquaintances and partners. Among these well-acquainted individuals, consensus on measures of mate value was nearly zero.

What happened? Well, as many people will tell you: getting to know somebody over time makes them more attractive to you. Yes, there will always be people who are able to leverage looks for a short-term advantage, but in the long run, it’s getting to know someone that ultimately makes them more attractive.

Now, let’s talk about why that is, and how playing up what makes you you is important when it comes to building attraction.

How Personality Wins Out When Building Attraction

So why is it that people who may not necessarily push our buttons right off the bat become much more attractive to us? It’s something simple, actually. This is because of a psychological quirk that marketers have long exploited: the Exposure Effect. When you’re exposed to something repeatedly, you tend to develop a taste for it. It becomes preferable to you because it’s familiar. This is why that annoying earworm you heard on the radio goes from being a mind-numbing “GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD” terror to a guilty pleasure to something you find yourself grooving to… sometimes within the span of days.

The Exposure Effect works on humans too; increased familiarity with somebody can make them seem more likable and pleasing. In fact, studies have shown that the more two people interact in a face-to-face setting, the more attracted they feel to one another… as many a person who’s found themselves interested in their best friend (or their best friend’s sibling, for that matter) can tell you. Attraction, after all, is about more than looks. It’s about how someone makes you feel. This is known as the Reward Theory of Attraction: the more somebody’s presence makes us feel good, the more we prioritize that relationship. We associate those feelings with that person and develop a new appreciation for them, a fondness for the things that make them uniquely them. This is why the way the way somebody wrinkles their nose when they laugh can make your heart race, even if they’re not objectively beautiful, while a gorgeous woman can leave us feeling cold.

Objective beauty doesn’t necessarily win out in the long run: because the way we feel about people changes how we perceive them.

BUT.

Exposure alone doesn’t automatically mean that two people are going to fall in love. After all, anyone – and I’m including myself in this – who’s played the Platonic Best Friend Backdoor Gambit has their tale of woe for being trapped “in the Friend Zone”.  Nice GuysTM try this all the time only to fail when women see through their agenda. Exposure doesn’t magically make love happen, it enhances the dominant emotion someone feels for you. If someone finds you kind of annoying, repeated exposure only serves to reinforce this. If someone things you’re cool however, getting to know you over time, building attraction, makes them much more likely to be interested.

If you want to level the playing field when it comes to attraction, you don’t want to just hang around in hopes of breaking someone’s resistance down (also: ew). You want to let people – whether friends in your social circle, classmates, coworkers or fellow regulars at your favorite bar – get to know the awesome person you are. How do you do this? Well to start with:

Nail The First Impression

There really can be no underestimating the power of a first impression. Getting off on the wrong foot with somebody – say, being rude and dismissive to someone – can affect how somebody will see you for years to come. This is why you want to make as strong and as positive a first impression on somebody as possible. This is why to start with, you want to dress well. Clothes do make the man after all; wearing flattering, well-fitting clothes goes a very long way to creating a positive impression of you. It tells other people that you put the effort in to take care of yourself and that you have confidence.

And showing that confidence is also key. Confidence, after all, is sexy, and being able to show it (even if you don’t feel it) makes you more intriguing and appealing to others. Making strong (but not too strong) eye contact, standing upright with your shoulders back and demonstrating relaxed body language all show that you’re confident in yourself and in the value that you have to offer other people. Shrinking away from somebody or folding in on yourself tells the other person that you don’t believe you have anything about yourself of value or interest… and believe me, most people are going to take you at your word.

"I guess it's nice to meet you. But it's not like you're going to like me anyway. Nobody does."

“I guess it’s nice to meet you. But it’s not like you’re going to like me anyway. Nobody does.”

All of this ties into the most important part of making a good first impression: bring the positive energy. We instinctively like people who like us, after all. We can’t help it. By being warm and friendly, showing the other person that we’re interested in them and genuinely pleased to meet them, we make them want to spend more time around us. The best first impression that you can leave someone with is that you’re a cool person who thinks that they’re cool too.

Bring The Fun

If you want people to get to know you – and thus see how awesome you are – then you have to be someone they want to spend time with. Which means you want to be someone who’s fun. Fun, after all, is the most attractive trait someone can have – more than looks, more than money or status or popularity. Being fun is one of the easiest ways to tap into the Reward Theory of Gratification. To give an example: one of the sex-gettingest men I know is short and stocky… but he’s also easily one of the funniest people on the face of the planet. He has a lightning-fast wit and always has a story on hand and a joke ready to go. Whenever we’re at a party, he’s the center of attention because people love talking to him. We all want to hang around and spend more time with him because hey, he’s an awesome guy and makes us all laugh.

And he gets sex (and dates and relationships) the way cheese gets mice. Even the people who aren’t into him right off the bat warm up to him fairly quickly. He may not be their type at first, but they love spending time with him and he grows on them.

Now think about the people in your life – your co-workers, your classmates, your social circle – all of them.  Most of the people we know are more or less nondescript. They’re nice enough people, don’t get me wrong but just… kind of there. They’re pleasant. They’re non-memorable. But we all have those few friends who stand out. They’re the ones who make us laugh or who always have the best stories. They’re the ones who are always doing cool, exciting things and make us want to do cool and exciting things with themThey’re passionate. They’re alive. They’re just fun. 

Now which group of people would you want to be spending more time with? The pleasant-but-kind-of-dull ones? Or the ones who liven up a room and make you feel good?

"So... anyone up for that documentary on the highway system?"

“So… anyone up for that Ken Burns documentary on the highway system?”

Now don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that in order to win people over you have to constantly be playing the dancing monkey and always putting on a performance. Nobody can be “on” 24-7, and being around the ones who try gets exhausting.

Just try imagining being with Robin Williams in his mountains-o'-coke days...

Just try imagining being with Robin Williams in his mountains-o’-coke days…

You just want to be someone who’s fun to be around in general. You’re a cool person, not the entertainment director.

Building Attraction By Playing The Long Game

A lot of people get caught up in the idea of instant attraction; they believe that in order to be successful in love, they have to be someone that people immediately fall for. Someone who can just walk into a place, charm the room and walk out with a lady or two (or three) on their arm.

Sorta like this.

So basically Tony Stark…

The idea of being that person, the “love at first sight” guy, is so pervasive that many people think that if they can’t be him, then they’re doomed to a life of Forever Alone.

But relationships don’t work like that.

Relationships that form quickly – the “love at first sight” kind – burn out quickly as well. They’re formed on surface impressions – physical looks, superficial charm, etc. – and that attraction fades as the couple gets to know each other better. This is why high school is so often a rolling morass of relationships, with couples getting together and breaking up seemingly within days, if not weeks: they’re falling in limerence with the surface, not the core and the appeal vanishes quickly.

Playing the long game, however, means letting things build. It’s the slow simmer rather than the fast boil, the gradual building of true attraction. Most relationships, especially ones that are going to last, are built over time. Building attraction is a process, and when it works, it’s magic. There’s nothing quite like that realization of a newfound desire or realizing that somebody is suddenly incredibly hot.

Yes, people who are conventionally good looking have the initial advantage. But by being someone worth knowing, someone that people want to be around and spend time with… as they get to know you, they’ll begin to realize just how attractive you actually are.

 

  1. Operative word: relatively. You’re pretty much never going to get  100% agreement on any subject []