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Interpersonal attraction

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Describe and evaluate two psychological theories of interpersonal attraction. In this consider the extent to which attraction is determined by cultural and social factors, rather than an act of choice.

Attraction can be considered as a relatively simple process, which has a number of different forms such as friendships, sexual attraction and romantic love. There are various factors and processes which are involved in attraction, which will be covered in this essay.

Interpersonal attraction does have an important function, in that it firstly, fulfills the basic human need to reproduce. Secondly, man can be considered as gregarious. The effects of social deprivation have been outlined in various studies such as Bexton et al (1954), Schachter (1959), Newcomb (1990). Social interaction is also essential with regard to confidence and self-esteem, and provide vital information about a persons competence and worth. Social interaction also provides reassurance in situations of fear and uncertainty as shown by Schachter (1959) and Karmarck et al (1990).

Research has identified a number of factors such as physical attractiveness, similarity, complementarity, familiarity, proximity, reciprocal liking and perceived fallibility which influence the process of attraction to varying degrees.

The first stage of interpersonal attraction is physical attractiveness. There are various theories about the importance of physical attraction and the influence of factors such as culture and generation. It has been shown in many studies that physical attractiveness has significant bearing in many areas of society from employment desirability to the implementation of justice. It has been concluded that if a person is considered as physically attractive then they are likely to be treated more favourably. Studies carried out by Dion (1972) concluded that an attractive child’s behaviour was considered as less serious than that of an unattractive child, even for the exact same act. Studies by Sigall and Ostrove (1975) concluded that for all crimes, except fraud, an attractive person would be given a considerably shorter length of sentence. The halo effect could be considered as an important aspect of this apparent bias towards physical attractiveness, this is when we attribute additional traits as part of the persons character, even if they are not valid.

The importance of attractiveness in respect to long-term relationships was studied by Walster et al (1966) who stated that marriage partners were rated as possessing similar levels of attractiveness, this was called the matching hypothesis, this research was supported by further studies conducted by Murstein (1972) and Silverman (1971). However Huston (1973) maintained that it is not a result of matching but should be instead considered as fear of rejection from someone more attractive that results in couple possessing similar levels of attractiveness.

Another important aspect in the process of attraction could be that of proximity, this can be considered as the physical distance which in turn determines the closeness of the relationship. A study by Segal (1974) concluded that proximity was a significant factor in the development of relationships. This conclusion was further supported by research conducted by Festinger et al (1950), Clarke (1952) and Saegart et al (1973) who all agreed that increased contact resulted in a higher level of regard.

However, if we feel that our personal space is being invaded then this may produce an adverse effect that results in hostility. This was illustrated perfectly by the research carried out by Felipe and Sommer (1966), which however would now be considered as highly unethical method of research as all the participants were not aware of the research that they were taking part in.

Familiarity is closely linked to proximity, in that the more we see someone the more likely we are to form a relationship with them. This was supported by research carried out by Zajonc (1968) who concluded that exposure or contact is enough to produce liking.

Another aspect of attraction is that of similarity and complementarity. Research has shown that groups of friends have similar attitudes and opinions Winslow (1937), Kandel (1978), there are several possible explanations for this, for example friends may grow more similar over time, an understanding of each other may result in shared attitudes, shared experiences may also result in common attitudes. A study by Byrne (1961) showed that people rated strangers with similar attitudes as more attractive ie intelligent, knowledgeable etc. The importance of similarity in respect to long term relationships was studied by Kerchoff and Davis (1962) found that relationships tend to be stronger if there is a sharing of attitudes. Duck (1973) concluded that the type of similarity was more important than the amount.

The role of complementarity was studied by Winch (1958) who proposed the theory of complementary needs hypothesis, this states that people select partners to compensate for personal deficiencies, Winch identified two main types of complementary needs, firstly nurturant-receptive, secondly dominant-submissive. This hypothesis has been criticised for being to simplistic, and that depending on the situation roles may be reversed ie a person may be dominant in one situation and submissive in another. This theory may play a role in the long term viabilty of a relationship, rather than influencing initial attraction.

A major factor in determining attraction is reciprocal liking, this is essentially that we are more inclined to like someone if they like us. A study carried out by Aronson and Linder (1965) led Aronson, in1976 to state that there were four conditions of what he termed the reward-cost principle.

1.(Positive) Person is consistently positive towards you.

2.(Negative) Person is consistently negative towards you.

3.(Gain) Person is initially negative but then becomes positive.

4.(Loss) Person is initially positive but then becomes negative.

Aronson (1976) stated that the strongest attraction comes from condition 3 ie that you have won someone around. Aronson and Linder stated that this reaction was a general principle of interpersonal attraction which they termed as the gain-loss model. This was further supported by research conducted by Clore et al (1975) which followed the same conditions as Aronson’s results and fit’s the gain-loss model proposed by Aronson and Linder. This hypothesis is in essence highly mechanistic in it’s view of interpersonal attraction.

An interesting aspect of interpersonal attraction is that of perceived fallibillity, this was defined by Aronson et al (1966) which states that people of average self-esteem consider mistakes by high achievers as acceptable, however mistakes from those considered as less than high achievers is more likely to cause a feeling of aversion. This conclusion was supported by research conducted by Helmreich et al (1970), which stated that people of high or low self esteem liked superior people less if they made a mistake.

Once initial selection has taken place, there are several factors which may influence the future or development of the relationship. The main theories concerning relationship maintenance involve some form of reward system. The complementary needs theory proposed by Winch (1958) can also be applied to the maintenance of the relationship. Newcomb (1971) stated that in the formation of relationships there is a desire to create a balance, and that we seek to develop relationships with people of similar interest’s. This theory was supported by research conducted by Newcomb in (1961) and further research conducted by Hill, Rubin and Peplau (1976).

Other theories concerning this area of attraction paint a pessimistic picture of the nature under which relationships are formed. The equity theory proposed by Hatfield and Traupmann (1981) and Walster et al (1978) state that there is a high degree of selfishness involved. The key to sustaining a relationship according to this theory is that there should be a balance of each partners needs being satisfied. Another aspect of this theory was that developed by Thibaut and Kelly (1959), Huesmann and Levinger (1976) who decribed relationships in terms of cost and reward.

The reinforcement model proposed by Byrne and Clore (1970) states that we are more likely to develop relationships with people to whom we attach feelings of satisfaction. This theory was supported by the research of Veitch and Griffin (1976), Rabbie and Horwitz (1960). It was, however, criticised by Duck (1992) who doubted the validity of the research methods used in conducting it.

Duck (1992) proposed that relationships provide continuity of routine and not concious or uncious decisions which decide the fate of relationships, research conducted by Duck and Pond (1989) endorse’s this theory.

There are several reasons why relationships breakdown, ranging from lack of stabilty, imbalance, deceit etc. Research by Bentler and Newcomb; Jaffe and Kanter (1979). Rusbuilt (1987) states that there is four types of dissatisfied behaviour;

1.Exit strategy- involves escaping from the relationship either physically or mentally.

2.Voice strategy- involves discussion of problems within the relationship.

3.Loyalty- belief that the relationship will improve.

4.Neglect- response to the cuurent state of the relationship is one of lethargy or disregard.

Duck (1982, 1992) states that there is, what he termed, a model of relational dissolution. This can be considered as the process by which relationships breakdown. This starts with a feeling of dissatisfaction about the current state of the relationship and involves an evaluation of the partners behaviour. This can be considered as the inter-psychic phase, as the persons thoughts are not yet evident. The second phase is that of the dyadic phase, this involves discussing their doubts with there partner. This may lead to several possible conclusions such as renegotiation, repair, withdrawal or conflict. If the latter two occur then this leads to the social phase, this is where the state of the relationship is discussed publicly, efforts might yet still be made to save the relationship at this point. When the relationship has finally been considered as beyond repair then the grave-dressing phase begins, this involves dealing with the effects of the break up. Baxter (1984) states that there is six phases involved in the break up of a relationship;

1.Onset of problem.

2.Decision to exit.

3.Initiation of unilateral disengagement action.

4.Initial reaction to the other party.

5.Ambivalence and repair scenarios.

6.Initiation of bilateral disengagement.

In conclusion the process of attraction can be considered as relatively simple, however it has to be stated that it is not as clear cut as first seems, this is evident from the number of theories that seem to contradict each other on the motives involved ie the theories concerning the maintenace of relationships conflict on the issue of whether it is concious or unconcious rewards system that influences behaviour or the desire for predictabilty. It is also evident that the process of attraction is universal in nature ie it can be practically applied to all aspects of relationships from love to companionship.


Cardwell, Mike; The complete A -Z Psychology Handbook; 1996.

Gleitman; Psychology, Third Edition; 1981.

Hayes, Nicky; Foundations of Psychology; 1995.

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