Explanations of interpersonal attraction 

Physical attractiveness

Many studies show that people who are physically attractive tend to be treated better. For example, Landy and Sigall (1974) found that male participants rated essays thought to be written by a more attractive woman more highly.

The matching hypothesis predicts that people select partners of comparable physical attractiveness. This may be to maintain balance (see Equity Theory ), or due to a fear of rejection, or because of the halo effect.

Research evidence

Murstein (1972) asked dating couples to rate themselves in terms of physical attractiveness, and asked independent judges to rate them. He found that real pairs were more similar in terms of physical attraction than random pairs. Silverman (1971) confirmed these findings in a field study, noting that the greater the degree of physical attractiveness, the more physical intimacy was displayed. The computer dance experiment (Walster et al., 1966) did not find support for the matching hypothesis. Nearly 400 male and female students were randomly paired at a dance, and later asked to rate their date. Physical attractiveness (which was independently assessed) proved to be the most important factor in liking, rather than similarity. It was also the best predictor of the likelihood that they would see each other again.


• Individual differences. Towhey (1979) found that individuals who scored high on the Macho Scale were much influenced by physical attractiveness.

• Artificiality in the computer dance. Walster and Walster (1969) found that when students met before the dance and had time to think more about their dates, they later expressed the most liking for those who were at the same level of physical attractiveness as themselves.

• Physical attractiveness is important in initial attraction, matching is more important later.

• The matching hypothesis has been extended to include matching in terms of other highly attractive features, such as intelligence or wealth.


Physical closeness increases the probability of interaction and acquaintance. 

Research evidence

Festinger et al. (1950) found that people who lived near the stairways (in the end apartments) in a U-shaped housing block had most passive contact with other residents, and had developed the greatest number of friendships with other residents. Clarke (1952) found that 50% of the people living in Columbus, Ohio, married people who lived within walking distance of their house.

Saegart et al. (1973) gave participants the task of rating the tastes of various drinks, during which they came into contact with a stranger one, two, five or ten times; liking of the stranger was positively related to the frequency of meeting.


• Proximity may polarise relationships. Ebbesen et al. (1976) found that most ‘enemies’ also lived close by.

• Proximity can be psychological as well as physical, explaining by Internet relationships. 


Similarity reinforces our own attitudes, reducing uncertainty and anxiety.

Research evidence

Newcomb (1961) offered 17 male students rent-free housing; 58% of those paired with a room-mate with similar attitudes formed friendships as opposed to friendships between 25% of those with dissimilar room-mates. Byrne and Nelson (1965) found a significant linear relationship between attraction and similar attitudes when participants rated people on the basis of seeing their responses to an attitude questionnaire.


• It is important to distinguish between similarity in attitudes, demographic characteristics and personality. Winch (1958) argued that people seek a partner whose personality is complementary.

Theories of relationship formation

Reinforcement-Affect Model

(Clore and Byrne, 1974) We learn to associate positive feelings (affect) with people or situations which reward us (reinforcement).

Research evidence

Veitch and Griffitt (1976) placed participants in a waiting room where they listened to either good or bad news with a stranger present. When they were asked to rate the stranger the degree of liking was related to the kind of news they had been listening to.


• Duck (1992) criticises such bogus stranger methods for being artificial. Need satisfaction (Argyle, 1994)

There are seven basic motives or needs, each of which can be satisfied at least in part by interpersonal relationships: biological (e.g. eating together), dependency (e.g. being comforted), affiliation (seeking company), dominance (establishing social order), sex (reproduction), aggression (interpersonal hostility), and self-esteem (being valued by others).


• Presents a one-sided picture, omitting the behaviour of other people.

Sociobiological theory

Only those behaviours which increase an individual’s reproductive success are naturally selected (see page 108). This theory would predict, for example, that women can increase their reproductive success by choosing high-status males who can control sufficient resources to provide for the offspring. Men use physical characteristics, such as youth and symmetry (= ‘attractiveness’) as a guide to reproductive ability.

Research evidence

Dunbar (1995) found that ‘lonely hearts’ ads supported this: women seek resources and offer attractiveness whereas the reverse is true for males.


• This approach is directed at reproductive relationships only, is deterministic and based on studies on non-human animal behaviour. 

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