From Affiliation to Attraction: Not Just Any Warm Body - But, That One Right There

We turn to others for validation, information and comfort. All these good reasons lead us to seek out others' company -- but we're very democratic about it: any comparable warm body will do and the more the better. In contrast, interpersonal attraction is highly selective and idiosyncratic. What you find attractive about someone else may not be the same quality that strikes another person. You and your best friend won't necessarily even find the same third person attractive -- a good thing if you want to avoid rivalry and competition! What is it that leads us from being content with the presence of "anyone" to wishing for the company of "that one"?

Interpersonal attraction begins with self-knowledge. You may be born with certain subtle preferences -- for example, preferring those who speak quietly and feeling annoyed with persons whose voices seem too loud. Other preferences come from experience: perhaps you have learned to associate brown eyes with warmth; musical talent with genius or a loud voice with self-confidence.

Signs of the qualities you seek become clues in your search for reward. Indeed, the "simplest theory of attraction" states that we find those persons most attractive who are perceived as being rewarding to us now or in the future. There are many ways we might be rewarding to each other, yet those who study relationships have found that there are a few identifiable factors that make others especially attractive -- or not. In this session, we will consider a few of the factors that most influence us individually -- familiarity and the proximity that helps foster it. In the next session, we will be looking at the elements of interactions that help foster attraction between two people in each other's presence -- having similar interests (similarity) and expressions of liking.

The Power of Proximity

An unintended effect of a term like "interpersonal attraction" is that it suggests that two living, breathing persons could be drawn together by factors that are powerful but impersonal, like gravity. It's discomfiting to think that something other than our own hearts and minds could be making relationship decisions for us -- or is it?

On reflection, it's not really so far-fetched to think that impersonal circumstances can influence our personal lives. Have you ever wondered what might have happened in your life, whether you would even have met a particular person, say, if you'd walked into a room five minutes earlier -- or later -- than you did? If you'd failed to make eye contact with someone you saw in a crowded room? If you had attended a different school, taken a different job or been born a year later?

These "road-not-taken" fantasies can remind you that much of what makes up your life and experience is not under your own direct control. Chance meetings often become serious relationships; in contrast, the most deliberate efforts to "make things work" can be fruitless, undone by sheer bad luck or bad timing or the fact that we cannot control another person's feelings.

A major set of influences on interpersonal attraction consists of situational factors rather than personal factors: something about your situation can make some people attractive to you, while others don't make the cut. (Remember that it works both ways : the same situational forces might be making you more attractive -- or less attractive -- to someone else, right now!).

No situational factor has received more attention from psychologists than proximity, how near or far you are from someone else. High proximity (nearness or frequent contact) is generally associated with greater attraction; low proximity (distance or infrequent contact) is linked with less liking. And for that matter, extremely low proximity -- no contact at all -- is obviously very bad for intimacy.

Suppose you believe, as some do, that for each of us in this world, there is only one great, true love? Okay, maybe there is that someone out there for you. But what if he or she lives in Madagascar? (Note: students who are telecommuting to this Relationships course from the vicinity of Madagascar do have a much better chance of finding that someone -- so please consider yourselves excused from this example!)

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