The unconscious and romantic attraction

Unconscious preferences play an important role when it comes to romantic attraction. This is the suggestion of new research from investigators at Northwestern University and Texas A&M University, which found there is a difference between what people say they want and what they actually desire with regard to finding a mate.

According to the team, preferences fail to predict who individuals are attracted to when it comes to meeting them in person.

Alice Eagly, Professor of Psychology and Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern - which was founded in 1851 to serve the Northwest Territory - noted that while consciously stated attitudes tend to predict behaviour reasonably well, "in the case of attraction, people's implicit, unconscious preferences seem to do a better job".

The authors explained, however, that just because reasons why people say they like others may not be totally accurate, this does not necessarily suggest romantic desire is simply random.

Dr Simon Moore of the London Metropolitan University, commented: "There are many layers that influence the shape, look and taste of a trifle. You can see the cream and custard on top, but if you dig down you'll find other things that contribute to the nature of the trifle - jelly, sponge and fruit for example.

"Human attraction is just like that. What you first see is not necessary what you'll get. The complexity lies in all the factors that combine to influence what we find to be attractive. If you ask someone what they are attracted to you are not necessarily going to get an accurate answer. The reason for this is two fold: Social Pressure and underlying unconscious evolutionary principles.

"As we are social creatures, many of our behaviours and actions reflect the norms of the groups we belong to. Social conformity plays a role in all aspects of our lives, what we wear, what we watch and who we should like.

"So if you ask someone what they find attractive they might just be telling you what they think they should be saying, rather than what they actually believe. 

"The other problem lies in evolutionary psychology. Three years running I asked my psychology students through a show of hands what things they found to be attractive. This has involved around 400 students. Counting up the hands there seemed to be no difference in preferences between the males and females in what they deemed to be attractive.

"In fact, when I mentioned resources such as status and money for example, many of the females protested that those things certainly weren't attractive to them. Similarly the males contested that they found physical appearance not to be a major factor in wanting to date someone.

"Yet when I subsequently asked the class to privately rank in order a number of characteristics that would attract them to someone I saw different results.

"Females consistently ranked status, wealth, resourcefulness, intelligence and competition as the characteristics they found to be most attractive. All of these relate to some kind of resource provision.

"Males on the other hand rated beauty, health, youth [and] physical fitness as characteristics they were most attracted to. Grouped together, these relate to physical wellbeing and healthiness.

"Such responses support the claims of David Buss who suggest no matter what we protest consciously we are still very much influenced by our unconscious survival needs.

"In relation to attraction we are looking for someone who we might potentially pass on our genes with - for women that is someone who can provide support and invest resources in the baby (intelligence etc) and for men, a female who will safely provide a healthy baby.

"Even smell plays an unconscious role as there is research suggesting that the more genetically similar we are to someone the less we will like the way they smell.

"Perhaps this is a biological safety mechanism to dissuade forming such close romantic bonds with relatives. This is of course all age dependent and I would imagine attraction and things we find attractive would change over the lifespan - I wouldn't expect underlying evolutionary principles to be so influential later in life."