What is it that makes someone seem attractive? And why does it seem like some people just ‘get you’?

Psychology professor Claire Hart says there are five factors that influence attraction: proximity, reciprocity, physical attractiveness, similarity and familiarity.

Proximity refers to the distance you are from somebody or something, and being closer to someone and seeing them more often tends to increase how attractive you find them. Professor Hart explains that when you are close to people and interact with them more often, you might begin to realise that you have similarities, start to feel comfortable with them, and maybe start to find them attractive.

Reciprocity, or reciprocal liking, means that we tend to like people who like us. Often we pick up on signals that somebody likes us, which increases how much we like them, but also if we find out that someone likes us, it usually makes us like them more.

What we find physically attractive varies across cultures and among individuals, but certain features seem to be universal and may be connected to our evolutionary past, according to Wendy Paris. In women, features connected to youth and good health, such as bright eyes, clear skin, and full breasts tend to be attractive, and in men, features connected to health and an ability to protect and provide, such as being tall, strong and having a deep voice, are typically attractive features. These features are thought to be signs of reproductive health, though what we find attractive has also been influenced by the media, Paris says.

Results from speed dating experiments suggest that physical attractiveness may be more important than the characteristics that people say they look for in a partner. Paris explains that in these experiments, people first listed the characteristics that they liked and then went speed dating. After speed dating, most wanted second dates with the best-looking people rather than people who matched the characteristics they liked. However, Paris adds that sense of humour and warmth were also important factors in determining who people wanted second dates with.

Physical attractiveness tends to be less important for longer-term relationships, however, according to psychologist Jeremy Nicholson. He explains that while attractiveness is more important for short-term sexual relationships, for longer-term relationships, uniqueness, positivity and a pleasant personality are important qualities. Paris adds that in most relationships attraction grows over time: people get to know each other more, and as intimacy grows so does attraction.

Similarity means that we tend to like people who are similar to us. Professor Hart suggests that we’re likely to find people with similar interests or similar values attractive, but this even extends to liking people whose names sound similar to our own. Jonathan Haidt explains that when we hear words that sound like our own names, our brains give us a little bit of pleasure, biasing us to think that that thing or person is good. Although it’s a small effect, people are more likely to marry someone whose name sounds like their own, even if it’s just the same first letter, Haidt says.

The fifth of the five factors is familiarity – the idea that we like people who seem familiar to us because of our family background. Dr Alex Jones says that if there was a funny person in your family that you liked, you might find funny people attractive in later life, as it creates a feeling of safety and predictability. Psychotherapist Robin Skynner also believed that we like people who are similar and seem familiar because of our family background, but he thought this had a much more powerful influence on attraction.

Skynner’s theory was that we unconsciously choose partners whose families had similar problems to ours and similar ways of dealing with emotions. He explained that in different families different emotions are seen as good or bad. The ‘bad’ emotions are those that the parents are uncomfortable with, for example anger or jealousy, and are not allowed in the family. As kids, we quickly learn what the ‘bad’ emotions are and push them into our unconscious, what Skynner calls behind the screen, and then, when we grow up, we tend to choose partners who have similar stuff behind their screens. He explained that these people will seem similar to us psychologically, and maybe give us the feeling that ‘he or she just gets me’.

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