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The social factors that influence interpersonal attraction

Interpersonal attraction encompasses the ability to love, like, dislike and hate. These are universal imperatives, as most people desire relationships of some form, whether friendship or romance, whilst experiencing (a range of emotions) animosity and rivalry , all of which make interpersonal attraction a major topic within social psychology. Social traits are important aspects in attraction and according to Hume (1757), attraction is subjective rather than objective since it is 'in the eye of the beholder'. However, researchers have defined attraction objectively through several social factors and theories such as: personal characteristics, proximity, similarity, reinforcement-affect model and familiarity, which shall be further discussed within this essay.

Personal characteristics are important factors of interpersonal attraction, which are seen as attractive to the onlooker. Physical attractiveness, in particular, leads to positive stereotypes, which are defined as the halo effect. Feingold (1992) found that attractive people are seen as being intimate and social. Thus, physical attractiveness is seen as an important interceding factor in the beginnings of a relationship. However, according to the matching hypothesis, people are attracted to those who closely resemble their own level of physical attractiveness (Walster, Aronson, Abrahams and Rottman, 1966). This is important since attractive people receive better treatment due to positive stereotyping. Research has shown that they receive lighter sentences in court, better marks in their essay, are seen as kinder, more joyful by others, more likely to be hired (for jobs) and get higher starting salaries (Stewart, 1980; Landy and Sigall, 1974; Hunsberger and Canvanagh, 1988; Watkins and Johnston, 2000; (and Dipohoye, Fromkin and Wiback, 1975)). Nevertheless, this is not always the case, since research has also shown that attractive women are materialistic and attractive female criminals are more likely to receive heavier sentences in court (Dermer and Thiel, 1975; Sigall and Ostrove, 1975). Yet, the halo effect is culturally relative, as physically attractive people are perceived as outgoing, supportive and adult-like in different cultures (Wheeler and Kim, 1997). The matching hypothesis was investigated by Walster et al. (1966). They used a computer to randomly select and match men and women. They found that physical attractiveness seems to be more important than the computer matching process. This, however, it has focused on short-term relationships, but, most importantly, there was a lack of free choice for the participants. When participants had a wider choice limit and a chance to meet beforehand, matching was, nonetheless, still evident (Walster and Walster, 1969).

The evolution of physical attractiveness could further explain interpersonal attraction, as it might affect mating choices and potentially, long-term relationships. The evolutionary explanation defines physical attractiveness as a sign for potential reproductive success. It assumes men have nearly an infinite reproductive faculty and thus seek many offspring in mating. This reaches its fullest potential for sexual mates who have high reproductive values such as fertility, which is shown by age, happiness and appearance, through smooth skin and white teeth. However, for women, they should be attracted to men only if they can provide basic, social and economic needs. Both genders prefer robust genetic qualities, which would allow their children to thrive. Indicators of genetic quality are youthfulness and symmetry which require healthy genes, and may give an explanation of why they are important in attractiveness. The evolutionary explanations are supported by Waynforth and Dunbar (1995), who researched into personal ads and showed that more males than females prefer and seek youthful and attractive partners. There is cultural support for physical attractiveness, since Westernised, Asian and Hispanic cultures judge characteristics such as large eyes, small nose and a chin as attractive (Cunningham, 1986). This supports the evolutionary explanation. However, this cultural understanding may not be due to qualities which signal fertility. It could be due to the baby face hypothesis, an alternative reason in which baby-like qualities are what adults prefer since it shows that they can protect and provide for their offspring's needs. Thus, this could be the reason why people evoke affectionate feelings towards them.

Personality is just as important as the evolutionary explanation and must looked upon in order to understand interpersonal attraction. Some personality types, such as extroversion, are seen as more attractive than other types, for example introversion, within westernised society (Duck, 1999). Likewise, supportive and caring people are liked more than others (Rubin, 1973). These attributes appear to be crucial in attraction, since individuals become more interested in their partner's personality, and if their personalities relate to each other. However, personality seems to be important in the beginnings of a relationship but, later on, personality becomes dull due to its predictability (Felmlee, 1995). It seems that people are attracted to qualities which link to successful reproduction and child development, as these qualities are culturally seen as attractive. However, if people are only enticed by the most attractive, then finding a mate would be difficult which may explain how the matching hypothesis works. These factors are indeed important. However other factors such as proximity could influence interpersonal attraction.

Proximity increases liking, especially in developing and maintaining friendship. Research has shown that students on the bottom floor of a university housing complex made more friends than someone on the higher floor, since interaction was greater (Festinger, Schachter, and Back, 1950). It has been found that proximity is the main factor for developing friendships more easily, and that it has a more potent effect on short-term attraction than other factors (Segal, 1974). Disliking could increase due to proximity because neighbours might likely irritate their neighbours and vice versa. Ebbesen, Kios and Koneeni(1976) found that if a neighbour is argumentative, then proximity tends to make them hated, avoided and irritated by their neighbours. The filter theory can explain why proximity is so important. This is displayed in the study recently mentioned whereby proximity possibly behaves as an initial filter switch, which can either be positive or negative. It has been seen that proximity is a powerful liking determinant yet, the deciding factor seems to be similarity instead of proximity in the formation of relationship, however, Byrne (1961) supports proximity, since he adjusted the seating plan in a classroom as part of his study, and found that people in the middle row became more popular. This suggests that proximity seems to be the deciding factor. However, when describing relationships, similarity is a factor which should not be excluded.

Since, similarity is a key factor within relationship. Research has found that participants with similar attitudes were probably going to form friendships (Walster et al., 1966). Relationships would be formed between those who have similar social-economic status, religious and educational backgrounds (Kerckhoff, 1974). There is empirical evidence for dissimilarity-repulsion hypotheses were participants who were dissimilar rather than similar were less likely to form friendship and bonds (Drigotas, 1993). An explanation could be that similarity provides validation for people's own ideas and thoughts, which make them feel that they are accepted and correct. Similarly, people possibly want to avoid those who are different since this challenges and threatens them. However, while similarity seems to be important, but Rosenbaum (1986) found dissimilarity is the real deciding factor in interpersonal attraction not similarity. Nonetheless, not all support Rosenbaum's dissimilarity view as being the causal factor of interpersonal attraction, since Smeaton, Byrne and Mumen (1989) found that when a participant and a stranger were similar, rather than dissimilar, it was more likely that they would be attracted to each other. Yet, Snyder and Fromkin (1980) suggest that being similar could endanger the participants' uniqueness and identity, which are two positive traits within westernised society, and thus dissimilarity is more appealing. The reinforcement-affect model could explain not only how attraction is formed, but provide a detailed answer on which social factors affects interpersonal attraction the most.

The reinforcement-affect model explains how attraction might happen, which was proposed by Byrne and Clore (1970). It assumes that people can be rewarded or punished immediately by others; which is defined as operant conditioning; or it can be linked to reward or punishment, which is known as classical conditioning. People positively evaluate a person if they provide positive feelings within others, which leads that person to be rewarded, and is the reinforcement role within the model. If people are the link and basis of a satisfying occasion then they are liked. A person who someone may not have previously met, which is the neutral stimulus, can be appreciated due to that person’s positive mood, the conditioned response. Byrne and Clore (1970) assumed that for relationships to form there had to be an equal amount of positive and negative emotions. When positive feelings overshadow negative ones then a relationship would probably succeed and develop, unlike ones in which the negative feelings overshadow the positive ones, which would probably fail. There is empirical support for this model, since Griffit and Guay (1969) found that participants gave the highest ratings to the experimenters who gave them a positive score on their ability. Through association, the liking principle was supported in this study as well, since a bystander was positively scored, since they were linked to a rewarding event. Also, other studies were based in a laboratory, which would not show the reinforcement-affect model in real-life settings. Hays (1985) provides the limitations of the reinforcement-affect model, since it focuses on being liked by others, yet people gain contentment from being charitable, especially from the perspective of family relationships, which are rarely focused on rewards. Research has found that in many cultures, women focus more on others’ needs than their own (Lott, 1994). This theory suggests that the most important factor which leads to satisfying outcomes is familiarity.

People may prefer familiarity over other factors, since they might prefer people who they are greatly exposed to, which would lead to attraction. The 'exposure effect' has been investigated in student halls, and the findings were that those students who interacted more with their living arrangements, such as the kitchen and living room had a higher chance of forming friendships with other people in the same residence (Yinon, Goldberg and Neeman, 1977). Research has also examined the connection between familiarity and liking. It was found that participants preferred their own image, whilst people preferred their friends' image since they were familiar with them (Mita, Dermer and Knight, 1977). This could be explained through the reinforcement-affect model, since predictability leads to satisfying outcomes. Nevertheless, familiarity might not lead to bonding or friendship, but disrespect and disdain, which was supported by Swap (1977); who found that the person who played the role of the punisher who was exposed more to the participants received a greater hatred from them. Saegart, Swap and Zajonc (1973) contradicts Swap, as they found that participants in a pub were asked to score whether the taste of the drink was good or not, while a stooge came in one to ten times, the participants preferred meeting frequently with the stooge rather than the taste of the drink, since it was crucial to establish relationships. Finally, these factors which cause attraction unify into what produces either dislike, hate, like or love which would result in a relationship or not. Some relationships, however, are a result of other factors. Family relationships, for example, could be due to sensitivity and responsiveness.

Overall, various social factors are indeed a determinant of interpersonal attraction, (but most importantly), interpersonal attraction is not based only on one factor, but a various combination, since it merges the biological, cultural and individual factors in order to determine who is attractive. Perhaps factors to consider are culture and history, since in different cultures and historical moments, the determinants of attraction have differed. What may not have been acceptable in the past, may be today. The same with culture; what is acceptable in westernised society may not be in other societies. Further research on interpersonal attraction would be able to work out what are the most successful criteria (to match partners), and potentially help prevent divorce, while increasing the possibility of maintaining long-term relationships. This is a justified reason to give further research into the social factors of interpersonal attraction a high priority.

Word count: 2004


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