How Our Brain Computes Attraction

New research sheds light onto how our brains combine the features of attraction.

Posted Oct 01, 2018

When it comes to sex and mating, what do you find attractive? As Dr. Daniel Conroy-Beam puts it, "All humans have a psychology of short-term and long-term of mating" and some researchers in the field of evolutionary psychology study this issue in a variety of creative ways.

U. Cal. Santa Barbara; This World of Humans podcast
Dr. Daniel Conroy-Beam
Source: U. Cal. Santa Barbara; This World of Humans podcast

Attraction is an incredibly personal issue. Even though there are some statistical trends,  we all have our unique attraction profile. For example, almost everyone places some value on both intelligence and kindness. When it comes to physical features, height is reliably seen as attractive in men, while a low waist-hip ratio is usually seen as attractive in women.

Beyond this, trends are difficult to identify except by vague, often subconsciously identified traits such as facial symmetry, vocal qualities, and resemblance to features found in our opposite-sex parents (for heterosexual attraction). Scent seems to play a role as well, but usually not in a way that we can actually articulate. The point is, it's complicated.

Dissecting complicated issues is what science is all about and attraction researchers have identified a variety of features that contribute, to varying degrees, to how we rate our attraction to someone. In both men and women, those features include kindness, intelligence, dependability, emotional stability, and healthiness. For men, apparent youthfulness and fertility often add to the attraction profile while women tend to be more attracted to maturity and higher socioeconomic status. These weak general trends allow for substantial interpersonal variance and stem mainly from research on heterosexual attraction. In addition, we know that attractions change due to extrinsic social and cultural factors, changes to family circumstances, aging, testosterone levels (in both women and men), and even through women's menstrual cycles.

One relatively simple (simple compared to all that!) and testable question is how these various factors integrate in our minds. For example, do some features matter more than others? Is there a weighted ranking system at play? Do we have "deal-breaker" features that must be present (or absent) regardless of everything else?  To address this question, Drs. Daniel Conroy-Beam and David Buss conducted a research project that attempts to integrate the various components of attraction into a unified model. Using hundreds of research participants, Conroy-Beam and Buss applied several mathematical models for integrating 23 individual components of attraction and measured how well each of them explained overall self-reported attraction.

Evolution and Human Behavior (Journal)
Source: Evolution and Human Behavior (Journal)

The result was deceptively simple. The best mathematical model was that of euclidian distance, which essentially says that all of the test components of attraction are of roughly equal weight and they "add up" to an overall sense of attraction via a simple multidimensional model. This is simple mathematically, but difficult to conceptualize mentally since we can only imagine things with our mind's eye in three dimensions.

For more details on this study, how and why it was done, you can listen to episode #09 of my podcast, "This World of Humans," in which I discuss all this and more with Dr. Conroy-Beak. And you can read the original research paper here

At least when it comes to attraction, our brains really are capable of multidimensional computation.

References

Conroy-Beam, D., & Buss, D. M. (2017). Euclidean distances discriminatively predict short-term and long-term attraction to potential mates. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(4), 442-450.