Science of Attraction: Why Some People Seem Irresistible

From pheromones to a full night’s rest, here’s a glimpse into the psychology of love and attraction.

Medically reviewed in November 2020

Updated on March 1, 2021

It’s the mysterious spark that inspires pop songs and moves armies. You might even have experienced it yourself—that instant physical chemistry that can be difficult to describe, let alone study. Yet scientists have spent decades researching the mental and physical processes that influence attraction. 

We spoke with Leah Baldwin, LCSW, CSAC, a counselor and social worker at Parham Doctors' Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, to learn why you may be irresistibly drawn to some people instead of others. 

The psychology of love and attraction 
Whether you’re in the “butterflies” phase of a romance or 20 years in, human attraction may be based in part on whether you unconsciously identify someone as a stable, healthy partner for the long haul. In fact, humans may be prone to seeing traits that could help ensure survival as sexy, according to some psychologists. 

On a purely physical level, there’s some evidence that heterosexual men may be more drawn to female partners that look healthy or fertile. For example, hair tends to become thin and dull in times of sickness, so thick, shiny hair may boost physical attraction.  

Heterosexual men also tend to favor smaller waist-to-hip ratios in women. Why? Possibly because chronic illnesses like diabetes change fat distribution, making waist-to-hip ratio an indicator of health. This ratio fluctuates slightly with menstruation as well, and women may be more fertile when it’s lower, according to some research. 

Physical signs of health impress women too, but studies suggest they tend to think about more factors than men when gauging physical attraction. For example, women may find thick hair appealing, but they also might take signs of stability into consideration. That could include indications of security, like a safe home, or social intelligence, like a group of close friends

“But a lot of this is environmental,” Baldwin adds. “It's difficult to say that you’re biologically primed, versus conditioned, to find someone appealing.” Everyone’s desires are unique, and the way you interpret someone’s features may be influenced by a host of factors. Your culture, age, sexual orientation, sex and relationship preferences, previous dating experiences and much more may affect who you find appealing. 

Are certain partner traits attractive to most people? 
Studies indicate there are a few simple things anyone can do to up their allure: 

  • Stand up straight: A 2016 experiment involving 144 speed dates revealed that open body language—chest up, shoulders back—significantly increased a person’s chance of getting a second date. 
  • Get a full night’s rest: In a small study from 2010, people were photographed after a good night’s rest and then again after being awake for 31 hours. When strangers observed the photos, people were rated as less healthy and less attractive without sleep. 
  • Have a calm presence: Getting easily stressed out is generally seen as physically unattractive across genders. It’s also linked to a greater chance of relationships breaking up over time. 

What about pheromones? 
No doubt you’ve heard of pheromones, the odorless molecules your body releases to send signals, such as attraction, to others. Even though pheromones are scentless, people detect them unconsciously through smell; for example, in one study, women preferred the scent of sweaty T-shirts from men who’d produce genetically healthy offspring. That makes pheromones an easy marketing tool for beauty companies. 

If it makes you feel beautiful, an “aphrodisiac” perfume is worth the investment, but the science behind these modern love potions isn’t completely sound. While researchers have identified specific mating chemicals in the animal kingdom, they’ve had a hard time pinpointing exactly which molecules signal desire among humans. They need to learn more before these chemicals can actually be bottled and sold. 

Mental attraction is important, too 
"Pheromones might contribute to that instant chemistry,” says Baldwin. “But psychology—how people behave and why—also contributes and really will determine whether a relationship lasts.” 

For example, regardless of gender, people tend to find intelligence highly desirable, according to numerous studies. Helpfulness and conscientiousness—rather than laziness—are also considered turn-ons for most people.   

Once you get beyond that early phase of intense physical attraction, you begin—either consciously or unconsciously—to rely on your ideals and shared values, and that will carry your connection during later phases, Baldwin explains. 

“I think it's important to put all these factors—physical and emotional—in the mixing bowl,” she says. “You can take advantage of what science says [in regards to attraction]. But temper it with what you know; your own experiences and an understanding of what’s important to you long term.”

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