Laws of Attraction: How Do We Select a Life Partner?

Laws of Attraction: How Do We Select a Life Partner?

What we know, and don’t know, about the process of mate selection.

Most of us seek a partner, for life or at least for a while. But how do we choose? After all, we meet hundreds, even thousands, of people in the course of our daily lives. What makes two people pick one another from among the myriad available candidates? Psychological science has long been trying to answer this question, and with considerable success.

Two main theories have guided scientific thinking on the subject. First is evolutionary theory, which claims that behavioral tendencies, physical characteristics, and personality features that promote our chances to survive and reproduce become, by that virtue, desirable to us. In addition, biological and anatomical differences between organisms will dictate different optimal solutions to the same problem. For example, if two animals, one with nimble feet and the other with strong wings, encounter a hungry predator, how will they deal with the survival threat? Most likely, the first animal will run away and the second will fly off.

Likewise, the evolutionary approach predicts that the biological and anatomical differences between men and women will result in different preferences for partner selection. For example, human biology dictates that women need help and protection during pregnancy, and that their fertility is time-limited. Therefore, it makes sense that men who can provide protection will be deemed attractive to women, and that young-and hence fertile-women will be attractive to men. Indeed, studies show that when it comes to long-term relationships, women overall emphasize the importance of status parameters while men find female youth highly attractive.

On the other hand, “social role theory,” developed by the American psychologist Alice Eagly, argues that social-rather than biological-processes dictate our social choices. According to this argument, the mate selection rules are dictated by the roles that women and men occupy in society. Thus, people’s preferences in the search for a mate are expected to shift as social roles and norms shift. For example, women are attracted to men with power and money because society limits their own ability to gain power and money. If, tomorrow, most positions of power and money go to women, then a man’s status and wealth will matter much less to women, while male beauty, youth, and stamina may come to matter more.

Indeed, studies over the past 50 years show some fundamental changes in mate preferences among both men and women. For example, since maintaining a comfortable life on one salary has become difficult in Western countries, and since most women in those countries work and earn income, both men and women currently put more emphasis than before on the partner’s economic and social status when choosing a life partner. Matters of housework, such as cooking and cleaning capabilities, on the other hands, are no longer considered important criteria for selecting a partner in both sexes. These changes indicate that the culture has an impact on the qualities we deem attractive.

Motivations be what they may, studies from the 1940s to the present point to the existence of several well-supported “laws of attraction” that govern the general process of choosing a long-term mate:

Laws of Attraction: How Do We Select a Life Partner?

1. Exposure and Familiarity. In general, we grow to like those around us and those with whom we have frequent contact. The more time we spend with someone, the greater the chances that we’ll like, accept, and fall in love with him or her. Now granted, we all know someone with whom increased interaction causes increased frustration and resentment, but that is the exception that proves the rule. Simple exposure is one reason why many a romance blooms at work or at the university. Daily contact over time turns strangers into friends, and more.