A baboon's flaming red butt is, in monkey circles, a physical feature that screams sex. If baboons had a fashion or film industry, baboon women with the most scarlet fannies would be chosen to quicken the pulse and stir the loins of the baboon public. Although humans have long since abandoned monkey ways, a great percentage of us must admit that the blatant sexuality of Pamela Lee does incite some degree of visceral lust. Human magnetism is a many-headed beast, so the vast majority of us have also experienced a profound attraction to an individual who does not comply with beauty standards. In fact, physical attraction is not only fueled by corporeal attributes. Emotions, personality, intellect, sense of humor, attitudes, and opinions are some of the immaterial elements that contribute to the powerful force of attraction. But we are complicated beasts, and though we have long since abandoned stone tomahawks, the dark cave of our mind still hearkens back to primeval human beings.
What we find attractive is a complex mixture of biology, cultural values, upbringing, beliefs, and individuality. In some respects we are mere animals, unconsciously seeking likely and sound mates in order to procreate our species with healthy, hardy offspring. We are swayed by the 'smell' of pheromones (they don't actually have an odor); we perform mating dances (flirting) that are remarkably alike the world over; and we subconsciously choose mates for their reproductive potential. But the qualities that separate us from the animals also have an important part in determining who we try to ensnare in our intricately woven love traps. Birds of a feather flock together and so we narrow our mating pool based on subculture, work, interests, religion, ethnicity, and other affiliations. Society takes its toll on who we prefer, but we are still individuals, and our self-perception also influences who we deem a potential lover.
The search for a mate is the duty of our species. For humans to subsist we must keep having sex and making babies. But since relationships and sex have long since been divorced from procreation, there are other reasons for finding a partner. For one, sex is down right pleasurable. Secondly, an amorous suitor makes us feel good about ourselves. And of equal importance is the comfort that emotional support, financial input and steady company provides. Working in a team seems easier, more productive, and less lonely than going through life alone. We are, after all, social beings.
But the primitive mind, fueled by the instinct to procreate, still insists on having a say in who we find attractive. Deep within the dark jungle of our minds, we are programmed to seek someone fertile; someone genetically different (not a brother or a sister!); someone healthy; someone socially compatible; and someone who is going to provide the necessary support for child rearing and nesting.
Many forces unconsciously sway our mate-radar. One phenomenon that has recently been the subject of scientific study and cause for general excitement is that of human pheromones. Pheromones are biochemicals that we secrete in our sweat (yum). Other people unconsciously detect and 'read' the messages carried in pheromones by a couple of little receptors located in the nose. They can have an effect on how attractive we find certain people. In fact, pheromones help us make wise decisions (from the point of view of our species) since we unknowingly prefer the 'smell' of those whose genetic make-up complements our own. Pheromones can be responsible for that groin-tingling immediate attraction that occurs with some people and not with others. Some people think that our preoccupation with cleanliness is washing away these biochemicals that regulate some of the ways in which we communicate. To read more about the magic of pheromones, click here.
There are certain physical characteristics that point our brains (and groins) to desirable hidden qualities. Imagine a woman with an hourglass figure sauntering by a group of men. Each exaggerated swing of her rounded hips and every gentle jiggle of her turgid breasts wreak bloody havoc on the group. Otherwise composed gents become jelly-kneed, slack-jawed, and drooling blokes. This isn't the conditioning of multiple Playboy subscriptions. Studies have shown that a waist-hip ratio of 0.7 (divide the measurement of the waist by that of the hips) is a key factor in making guys go gaga. This ratio indicates that a woman has a good build for child bearing-a prime candidate for passing on the family name (1). A curvaceous frame triggers an alarm that is deeply programmed within the recesses of a man's mind.
Women too are hardwired to appreciate certain 'good looks'. Psychologists say that women like a man that is very 'masculine' looking-with a square jaw, jutting brow, broad shoulders and a strong chest (think of, maybe, the Marlboro man?). These features indicate high levels of testosterone. High levels of testosterone indicate hardiness and resistance to disease (unless he smokes as much as the Marlboro man). Pragmatically, such specifics suggest good breeding material. The part of our brain that we share with our evolutionary ancestors is playing a big role in what we perceive as sexy and desirable.
Symmetry also seems to play a large part in what we find appealing in a person' physical features. Although we never consciously note that someone has good symmetry, it does make a subconscious impact. Our brain's circuitry equates symmetrical features with good genes, general health, and resistance to disease and hardship. Good symmetry represents something as close to perfection as a human face can get (nobody has absolute symmetry).
Studies have shown that women are more attracted to men with symmetrical faces during ovulation than at any other time. This suggests a deep-seated urge to mate with an even-sided being in order to pass on healthy genes. Before you decide that symmetry is indeed the best indicator of a good mate, consider that there is a downside of fantastic symmetry. Studies have suggested that symmetrically faced men aren't the best bet for the long haul. They tend to have more sex partners, are less faithful and don't commit as much to long-term relationships. They are indeed responding to their primal 'duty' to spread their healthy seed far and wide. A man who will ensure healthy, strong kids is pretty useful, but a man who will be a good father, a worthy partner, and a financial asset is also of great value (think of the appeal of a man wearing an Armani suit, a Gucci watch and fine Italian shoes). According to this research, there is a big gap between who should father the children and who should stick around and help. This is a problematic set-up for the modern world, but it may have been rather efficient during our evolutionary past. (PT) But old habits die hard and according to some studies, up to 30% of kids are not the biological offspring of the man who is believed to be their father (2).
But thankfully, we aren't totally driven by the need to procreate. We are humans, not salmon, after all. A lot of who we are attracted to has to do with how we feel about ourselves. We often assess our own worth (physical good looks, smarts, etc.) and seek someone who can balance out the equation. We often subconsciously evaluate how much we feel that we have to offer, and what we feel we can get for what we have before we set our sights on a potential lover. Sometimes we feel that our friends 'undersell' themselves and end up mismatched. We may say that so-and-so "could do much better", if it weren't for low self-esteem, negative self-image, and so on.
Other things affect how attractive we may find someone. Studies have shown that we become increasingly attracted to someone as we spend more time with them. You have probably experienced this with someone who made a negative first impression, but later proved to be intriguing. Or with someone who is shy and took a long time to reveal him/herself. Time often allows people to learn to appreciate and admire physical beauty that may not have been immediately striking. Intelligence, a sense of humor, interpersonal skills, and other talents may be slowly revealed over time to result in a strong attraction. We have all heard the phrase, "s/he has really grown on me". By sticking around and fostering a slight attraction, you might be planting the seeds for a blossoming relationship with a very magnetic individual.
Before assuming that you have very little control over how attractive YOU are, take heart. More studies show that people fall for those that give them compliments, reinforcements, and positive feedback. In this way, the potential mate becomes an encouraging reflection of the self. When the mate is sending back positive vibes it can boost or reinforce a person's sense of self and wellbeing.
Overall attitude, self-esteem, and the way a person carries him/herself all have a lot of weight in the dating game. Many women who are not classically beautiful by societal standards can be inexplicably hot. What is this magical force? It usually has to do with their own self-perception, their posture, their fun-loving personality, and all the ways in which they display themselves. So learning to love yourself is actually an important step in convincing others that you are one hot tamale. A person with a physical handicap might defy our notions of beauty by having certain magnetic characteristics. And someone who is drop-dead gorgeous might have a repelling personality that annuls the physical comeliness. Attraction is a labyrinth of instincts, intellect, feelings, culture, and opinions.
Attraction can also have nothing to do with the person. Associating someone with positive experiences and situations can also increase their attractiveness. If you meet someone under hot, sweaty, uncomfortable, or awkward circumstances, your associations will be negative. But if you meet him/her on a sunny and happy day when all goes well with the world, you will remember that person (and s/he you) with a certain fondness. Tip: for a date, go somewhere with a nice atmosphere, say nice things, and have fun. Don't invite your love interest over to play video games in your musty basement. A better strategy would be to stroll in the park, dine in a lively restaurant, or visit a mutually interesting attraction (amusement park, museum, etc).
Flirting is another basic instinct that elicits attraction. Flirting is the means by which we draw attention to childbearing hips, demonstrate general health by showing off a robust body, reveal that we are available, and express our interests. It is the way in which humans advertise themselves in the marketplace of mates and show off their traits to a contender before jumping into a relationship. To use an analogy, flirting is to sex what window-shopping is to buying. It is a human mating dance in which we brandish our good qualities, parade our prospects, flaunt our care-giving abilities, and generally exhibit ourselves.
Simply announcing our intentions in a blunt manner, "I think you are hot-let's have sex and maybe consider a lifetime attachment," is not the most effective way to meet a lover. What seems to work better (and is more fun) is this gradual revealing of the self through signs and signals. This playful theatre is basically warming up to the 'dirty deed'. And good flirting definitely heightens attraction.
Animals do mating dances, display their plumage, fight vicious battles, and sniff butts. Thank goodness, we flirt. Advertising ourselves to members of the opposite sex tests their availability and interest. If they respond, we continue, if they shun us, then on to the next! Our flirtatious signals have been studied carefully. Both men and women will show their submissiveness and docility by shrugging their shoulders, and resting their hands with the palms facing up. A flirtatious woman will make eye contact, play with her hair, lick her lips, sway her hips, bat her lashes, and look away. An interested man will show off his goods with grand gestures and stately composure. He might swagger, arch his backs, run his hands through his hair, lean back in his chair, fold his arms across his puffed up chest, and make wide, swinging gestures (3). With both genders, there is a slow progression from touching the self to touching the object of desire (touching the back of the hand or arm when making a point, brushing up against, etc). For fun, observe the body language of a flirting duo the next time you are at a bar or nightclub.
Evolutionary psychologists say that men want pretty, young and fertile women. And women seek secure, strong men with definite financial prospects. Although these qualities do have some bearing on who we choose for ourselves, we are cognitive and social beings who can squelch the primal attraction that may rear its beguiling head at inopportune times. We can develop strong attractions for someone who has a sparkling personality, a dry wit, a capacity for caring, and similar hobbies. We can become genuinely attracted to an individual's quirks and eccentricities.
We all have our individual idea of what the perfect mate is and beauty standards vary the world over. But when we are instantly attracted to someone, our rational brain stops working and we are overtaken by the preliminary symptoms of passion-giddiness, weak knees, fluttery stomach, nervousness, sweaty palms etc. Attraction and flirtation are the initial stages of the mating game, where our intellect and rational is temporarily suspended. We are, to a degree, acting according to the deeply recessed instincts of our species at this point. It isn't until later, after sharing a milkshake, going for walks together, or spending an evening over dinner that we engage our emotional and intellectual capacities to determine if the relationship is worth pursuing.
But how driven are we really by the primal need to find someone with healthy genes who is worth letting into our jeans for a night of passionate procreating? The survey on attraction enables us to explore the real ins and outs of human magnetism by going straight to the source. And the source that is most able to quench our thirst for knowledge is the huge pool of QueenDom's visitors.