Attraction Explained (2015) is an evidence-based dating book. It digs deeply into science and research to debunk dating cliches and provide readers with what really works in love and dating.
It focuses particularly on factors such as appearance, personality, geography, and similarity.
- Self-help dating books damage readers more than help
- The best predictor of a relationship is physical proximity
- Repeated exposures increase liking
- Appearances matter, but both male shallowness “female depth” have been overblown
- There is a whole host of traits that are attractive in the sexual marketplace, including kindness and warmth
- Kindness and warmth make others feel like we are also more physically attractive
- Liking is mutual, and that’s why “feigning disinterest” often backfires
- Similarity is one of the strongest predictors of relationship formation
About The Author: Viren Swami is Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. He focused his studies and researches on attraction and body image.
Dating Books Harm More Than Help
Arlie Hochschild conducted an analysis of the best selling dating books for women published between 1970 and 1990.
She concluded that not only they don’t help, but they actually harm readers. Under the guide of fake egalitarianism and gender equality, they harm the reader by encouraging:
- Emotional distance
- Denial of emotional needs
- Encouraging distrust of others
- Being self-reliant at all times instead of investing in social relationships
Writes the author:
Rather than expecting to give or receive love from other human beings, the postmodern cowgirl devotes herself to emotional control, forever distrustful of others with whom she might have relationships.
Hochschild talks about “abduction of feminism” and taking the movement down the wrong path.
And she is not the only (female) researcher to look into dating books for women.
Rebecca Hazleden’s analysis of the fourteen bestselling relationship manuals published between 1981 and 2000 reached the same conclusion. By encouraging self-sufficiency and self-love at the detriment of social bonds the books, she concluded, prepare readers to be “utterly isolated, cast adrift in a loveless world”.
This is something I have often said in my article and analysis as well, thus I wholeheartedly agree.
It’s the same that’s happening in some fringes of the male dating self-help by the way and not just the female. See “The Rational Male“, “The Red Pill” and “growing beyond the red pill“.
David Machin and Joanna Thornborrow analyzed Cosmopolitan dating section and came to the same conclusion.
Cosmopolitan presents a guise of “fun fearless female”, but those women are still alone.
If dating is about finding someone, then these resources hardly help.
Pick-Up Artistrty For Men
He asks if there is any truth in the “science” and psychology of the early pick-up artists, and his answer is “no”.
And some of the tips, like “negging” seem to fly in the face of actual science.
OK, no science, but do they work at least?
Swani says there is no real evidence. Plenty of personal stories and anecdotal evidence, but no real data.
And anecdotes of failures are easy to find as the successful ones.
The author says that the high incidence of misogyny and manipulation, both rampant in the pick-up industry, does not bode well for relationships.
Complexity Reigns Supreme
First of all, says the author, humans are complex.
Moods, situations, and personalities all render socialization and dating very hard to predict and, as for anything human, very difficult to generalize.
Playing Hard to Get Doesn’t Work Because People Prefer Partners Who Like Them
Why playing hard to get doesn’t work?
Because liking begets liking.
One person’s liking for another usually predicts the other person’s liking in return.
And the opposite is true.
Psychologists have shown that criticism is damaging to relationships, and spurning is similar.
That’s why playing hard to get often backfires: plenty of research shows that vagueness and stand-offishness won’t get you very far.
Of course, simply telling someone you like them does not magically makes them like you.
We don’t live in that type of world.
The reciprocity effect is influenced by suspicion of second motives, how “exclusive” that liking is, the costs and risks of our compliment, and how much they already like us.
I will quote the author here because I just couldn’t agree more:
(…) expressing liking for someone is a symbolic act of investment in the relationship.
In turn, these expressions of attraction lead to trust, which generates even more attraction.
When we believe someone is trustworthy, we’re much more likely to want to interact with that person in the future, simply because we believe those interactions are going to be beneficial.
In short, expressing liking leads to attraction and feelings of trust, which in turn leads to greater attraction.
In both my experience and opinion, that’s spot and exactly the case.
But there are some benefits if women play the “hard to get” strategy smartly.
- The myth of men enjoying the chase
- How to delay sex without rejecting him
- Common female dating mistakes
People are much more likely to form relationships when they share common attitudes, values, beliefs and demographics.
People also tend to form relationships with partners who overall attractiveness overall matches their own, which is called “assortative mating” in psychology.
Couples are also much more likely to form when there is a similarity of sociodemographic characteristics.
Watch out for dissimilarity though, because the opposite is also true: dissimilarity breeds dislike.
We tend to assume that people share similar attitudes, and when we find out they don’t, we come to dislike them.
Appearances Matter. And They Matter to Both Genders
The standard view is that men are all about appearances and women more about his status, resources and power.
But the author challenges the stereotype and, with an obvious dig at “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus“, says that men and women are not from different planets and more similar than most would expect.
Viren Swani says that for hypothetical situations, there is plenty of data showing that men value physical attractiveness more than women do and that women focus more on status and earning prospects.
But hypothetical situations don’t always transfer to real life, and in face to face the differences between men and women disappear.
The author mentions the “computer dance study” and “speed dating” scenarios.
However, I would make the case that those are very peculiar situations. The computer dance study was based on brief interactions dancing, a physical-based activity with brief interactions and little talking and, hence, little information about status (if not the physical attractiveness itself as an indicator of status). All participants were university students, too.
Speed dating, by their very nature, are quick and fleeting as well. And they are self-selected too, because people going to speed dating events, usually, are not the highest caliber mates and it’s possible they’re willing to compromise.
Telling people that their choice of partners was a very low status individuals might have led to very different outcomes in both men and, even more, women. But that wasn’t attempted.
What makes a big difference, says Swami, is whether individuals are looking for casual dating or long term and committed dating.
Women looking for short term were more likely to be swayed by attractive looks and placed looks above ambition.
When assessing for long term then ambition became relevant again.
Female’s own socio-economic status changes preferences.
The author says that one study found out that more financially independent women showed a stronger preference for physical attractiveness over financial prospects.
However, I had a different feeling from that study.
I copy from the abstract of the study:
Ambition and attractiveness synergistically influenced targets’ long-term desirability, and these preferences were not moderated by women’s sociosexual orientation.
To me it sounds like women value ambition quite a bit.
And plenty more studies showed that women in the upper social brackets and women with higher future earning potential both cared more about their long term partner’s social status and eraning potentials (see David Buss’ work).
Women who endorse feminist attitudes also placed less importance on his financial firepower and gave more importance to traits such as kindness, understanding and creativity.
When it comes to short term flings, both men and women are willing to compromise on intelligence and status, but not on physical attractiveness.
However, keep this in mind:
Physical attractiveness isn’t a static quality and that it can evolve and change depending on the characteristics of the individual as well as the situation they find themselves in.
Attitudes Towards Random Sex: Men & Women Are Not That Different
Men and women have different approaches to free sex.
Clark and Hatfield’s study (1989) is the most famous example.
When college men and women went around propositioning for random sex, most men accepted, and all women refused
But Swami says that study has been overblown.
The differences decrease when the person asking is familiar and attractive, and it disappears when the person is famous.
The author seems to confuse the issue.
He says that men and women are equally likely to accept sex if the asker is Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt.
In those cases, both genders are equally likely to say “yes”. But here we’re back again into the status and power category: Brad Pitt is sky high in attractiveness, fame, power, status and income.
That’s not a good study to prove that women are similar to men when it comes to casual sex.
To sum it up, says the author:
Sex differences in responses to casual sex may appear to be larger than they actually are.
If the right person comes along, the risk is low, and there is the potential for a good night of sex, women and men are equally likely to accept the offer of casual sex.
And for both women and men, physical attractiveness matters.
Stated Preferences: Not Very Reliable, But Still Matter
Do you know those people with a clear idea about the partner they want?
There are a few of those.
But do they end up with the partners they look for?
Well, they might, but their wish list has little predictive abilities of who they actually end up with.
The match between “ideal mate” and “actual mate” is still associated with better relationship quality and a higher likelihood of staying together.
Why do stated preferences are poor predictors of who we end up with?
Well, part of the reason might be because once we meet someone, we care a bit less about looks and we start digging a personality that we didn’t know we could enjoy:
Once The Interaction Started, Appearances Matter Less
Once the social interaction is underway the importance of social appearances slightly declines.
OKCupid for example registered that randomly matched people who went out on a date mostly had a good time. And that was independent of how attractive their partner was.
The same study showed that the best predictor of a follow-up date was not physical attractiveness, but how well the daters got to know their partners.
Nice Guy Stereotype: They Don’t (Always) Finish Last
The stereotype is that women say they want a nice, but deep down they actually lust after the bad boys.
Is it true?
Well, Urbaniak and Killman actually set out to put that stereotype to the test.
Participants were given a script in which a woman (“Susan”) is participating in a game show that resembled aspects of the popular TV game show “The Dating Game.”
Susan is presented with the opportunity to date one of two male contestants (“Todd” or “Michael”) and must choose between them based upon their responses to her questions.
Todd gave answers ranging from typical “nice guy” answers to “tough guy answers”, while Michael remained constant and “middle of the road”.
For example, to the question about “what it means to be a real man”, “nice Todd” said:
A real man is someone who is in touch with his feelings and those of his partner. Someone who is kind and attentive and doesn’t go for all that macho stuff. He’s also great in the bedroom and puts his partner’s pleasure first. I’d definitely say I’m a real man.
Middle of the road Todd said:
A real man knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. Someone who works hard and plays hard, and who is good to the woman he loves. He’s also great in the bedroom. I’d definitely say I’m a real man.
And jerk Todd:
A real man knows what he wants and he knows how to get it.
Someone who knows who he is, but keeps other people guessing and on their toes – he doesn’t go in for all that touchy-feely stuff.
He’s also great in the bedroom and can tell his partner what he likes. I’d definitely say I’m a real man.
Participants were then asked which date Susan should pick and which date they would pick.
Contrary to the stereotype that nice guys are always passed over, it was nice Todd that was women chose most frequently both for Susan and for themselves.
In a similar study with dating ads, it was kind men who were picked the most.
Or, more precisely, men who exhibited altruism as a courtship display, using keywords such as “I volunteer at a food bank” or “I enjoy helping people”.
This study lends credibility to Miller’s theory of sexual selection of morals, BTW).
In summary, it’s not really that complicated: When rating hypothetical partners, women seem to prefer men who are easy-going, warm, sensitive – read ‘nice’ – but also confident.
Needless to say, not all women are the same. And some picked recommended nice Todd for Susan and picked the jerk for themselves. But it was a minority.
More Dating Wisdom
- Uncertainty might be used in certain situations to pique interest
- Turn-taking during self-disclosure builds intimacy
- Self-disclosure is mostly effective when partners feel understood and cared for
- Self-disclosure works because it shows willingness to risk opening up and have an honest and authentic relationship
- For women, “selectively hard to get” works best, ie.: be hard to get for everyone but not for the man you like
- Similarity fosters attraction, and perceived similarity seems to be stronger than actual similarity
In fact, the need to know that one’s affections for another will be reciprocated is a common experience among people who have fallen passionately in love.
Knowing that you have been selected out of all possible suitors and that your liking is reciprocated can be life-changing.
Real Life Applications
Plays less games.
Sometimes, less is more.
- Some generalizations
The author writes:
This isn’t to suggest that all pick-up artists are nefarious and perverse. But as a community, pick-up artists are morally, ethically, and – importantly – scientifically bankrupt.
I think that’s a rather broad brush with which to paint such a large, disparate and diversified industry.
- Sometimes more about debunking than truth?
Sometimes I get the feeling the author is more about “debunking” this or that than actually getting to the truth.
That might lead to cherry-picking certain studies and ending up with a tainted version of reality.
I felt that way about the “offer for casual sex”.
The differences between men and women are extremely stark there and well-grounded in many studies and, well, also in “real life” as we all experience it.
The efforts to show that there was no difference felt out of place.
- Some out of place value-signaling white-knighting
Demands for sex, abusive responses to rejection, and dick pics – unsolicited photos of genitals – are all common forms of woman-hating in contemporary dating.
How is a dick pic woman-hating?
It might be stupid, it might out of place, in some cases, it might be idiotic and inappropriate.
Or this other passage:
(…) men open a conversation with a woman with inept sexual advances, like ‘I need an opinion on my penis size’ or ‘Mmmmmmm baby what are you wearing baby?’ The misogyny that drips from texts like these make any sort of further interaction unlikely.
Again, I see a lot of ineptitude indeed, but ineptitude is not misogyny.
- Cultural determinism bias
Sometimes the author seems to adopt the typical “blank slate” and “standard social science model“.
For example, he says:
Nevertheless, ideas of “paternalistic chivalry” – the notion that men should initiate and take control of approach behaviors and dating decisions – continue to dominate how heterosexual couples interact.
The most obvious reason for this is that we live in societies where women have less power than men.
Not really, “the most obvious reason” is that we have been shaped that way. Doesn’t mean it’s good or that we should keep it that way, but it’s not because women have less power.
- Great science and researches
What a wonderful job in finding, analyzing, and summarizing so many wonderful researches.
I truly learned a lot thanks to Viren Swami.
- Open-minded approach to science, difficult probing questions
I like that the author is not afraid of asking difficult questions.
For example, he notes that we tend to consider beautiful people as also more “good”.
I immediately thought there that he should ask whether or not beautiful people might also be more “good”. And he did ask and address it indeed, even mentioning some (limited) supportive evidence for “beauty” to reflect on health, social skills and intelligence.
That gave Swami a lot of credibility in my eyes.
Attraction Explained is a wonderful book.
The author does something that we need more of: deploying science and common sense in an area, women dating, where bad advice and generalizations are worsening women’s dating lives.