Physical attraction

Why looks matter…

With expert information from Dr Anna Haigh, Mental Health Specialist, Brighton, UK*

Kayleigh’s fierce lust often caused a visceral reaction – shallow breathing, racing heart and butterflies – whenever she laid eyes on someone beautiful.

Dr Anna Haigh took some time to explain the science behind physical attraction.

“Physical attraction plays an important part in what sparks a sexual encounter. However, it’s not the only factor at play when it comes to sustaining relationships in the long term.

“When we’re talking about physical attraction, we’re not just talking about physical appearance. Some of the other elements we appraise when someone is likely to be a good partner can include the way a person smells, as this can unconsciously communicate a raft of information about fertility and even genetic compatibility.[1]

Facial attractiveness, and symmetry in particular, seems particularly important.[2] When we perceive someone as physically attractive we are more likely to ascribe other positive characteristics to them – we judge them to be more successful and more likely to be happy, for example. We also tend to assume negative things about people we find unattractive, e.g. assuming they are less intelligent, less sociable and less helpful.[3]

Women are more likely to consider infidelity, or ending the relationship entirely if we think we are more attractive than our partner.[4] Inversely, we are more likely to experience jealousy that threatens our relationship satisfaction significantly if we think our partner is more attractive than we are.[5]

How much do physical preferences affect choice in sexual partners?

“This seems to vary across the genders. Women seem less likely to rate physical attractiveness as the most important factor when choosing a sexual partner, rating personality factors and attributes such as intelligence more highly. However, when studies focus on behaviour rather than self-report data, this difference significantly diminishes. Men consistently rate physical preference as highly important when choosing a sexual partner.[6]

“The type of physical attractiveness that is important also depends on whether a person is looking for a longer relationship or a short-term sexual partner. Research showed that the importance placed on the attractiveness of bodies, rather than faces, was greater for men when choosing a short-term sexual partner than a long-term relationship. Women consistently placed greater emphasis on facial attraction regardless of context.[7]

So, how much of looks-based sexual attraction is just cultural preference?

“In 2010, a largescale study by explored the body satisfaction of over 7,000 women from different cultures. They found that lower socio-economically developed communities valued a higher BMI, whereas higher socio-economically developed regions, which also tended to have greater exposure to ‘Western’ media, valued thinness and were more dissatisfied with their bodies. This suggests that there is an impact of culture in how we learn about what is attractive and desirable.

“The ‘matching hypothesis’ suggests that we are likely to opt for people who are equally or slightly more attractive than us when choosing a potential partner. What is interesting is this effect is significantly reduced if we have known the other person for some time before beginning a relationship, if we were friends with a person first, for example. The importance of matching each other for physical attractiveness reduces, suggesting that other things such as personality and compatibility begin to play a more pivotal role in relationship satisfaction.[9]

And do couples who are more physically attracted to each other have better sex?

“How physically attractive we find ourselves has an impact on how satisfied we are in our sexual relationships. In a study of 154 women, it was recorded that negative thoughts about our bodies during sex decreases pleasure and negatively impacts satisfaction. But a strong correlation between positive body image and high sexual satisfaction was found.”

Kayleigh and Johnno’s hook-up was based on pure physical attraction, but didn’t lead to anything further. Next!


[1] Grammer, K., Fink, B., & Neave, N. (2005). Human pheromones and sexual attraction. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology and Reproductive Biology, 118 (2), 135-142

[2] Weeden, J. & Sabini, J. (2005). Physical Attractiveness and Health in Western Societies: A Review. Psychological Bulletin. 131 (5), 635-653

[3] Griffin, A & Langlois, J. (2006). Stereotype Directionality and Attractiveness Stereotyping: Is Beauty Good or is Ugly Bad? Social Cognition. 24(2): 187–206

[4] Fugere, M.A., Leszczynski, J.P & Cousins, AJ. (2014). The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Palgrave, London

[5] Swami, V. et al,. The attractive female body weight and female body dissatisfaction in 26 countries across 10 world regions: results of the International Body Project I. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36 (3), pp. 309-325.

[6] Lippa, R.A. (2007). The preferred traits of mates in a cross-national study of heterosexual and homosexual men and women: an examination of biological and cultural influences. Archives of Sexual Behaviour. 36(2):193-208

[7] Confer, J.C. More than just a pretty face: men’s priority shifts toward bodily attractiveness in short-term versus long-term mating contexts. Evolution and Human Behaviour. 31 (5), 348-353

[9] Hunt, L., Eastwick, P. & Finkel, E.J (2015). Levelling the playing field: Longer acquaintance predicts reduced assortative mating on attractiveness’ Psychological Science. 26 (7), 1046-1053

[10] Pujols, Y., Meston, C & Brooke, N. (2010). The Association Between Sexual Satisfaction and Body Image in Women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 7 (2), 905-916

*A note from Dr Haigh on heterosexual and cis-gender bias: “As with many topics, much of the research into physical attraction centres on heterosexual coupling and sexuality, and ‘traditional’ notions of male and female gender. This means that there is a significant bias in current research material on this topic. Hopefully the balance will be redressed eventually, however we still have a long way to go.