Lecture 08 - Social Psych

Interpersonal attraction


(Adapted from Michener et al; Handbook of Social Psychology; Myers; The Social Animal, fifth edition)

I. Introductory comments. Work on interpersonal attraction has often been controversial and/or problematic. It is difficult to study such behavior. Much of the work has been done in the lab under artificial conditions. As Huston observes, well over 80% of the research findings about attraction between people have been derived from persons who had never met each other prior to the study, and, presumably, never saw each other again. Further, those studied have disproportionately been white, middle class, college students in the United States. Western culture has been almost exclusively focused on.

There are also two common opposing views of interpersonal attraction that each serve to oppose research in the area. One is that "it can't be done" - attraction is so ephemeral and nebulous that its outlines can only be suggested and mused upon. The other view says, "it shouldn't be done." These views were epitomized in Proxmire's awarding of the Golden Fleece award to Elaine Hatfield.

Why is it important to study this topic? Here is some demographic background.

A. MARRIAGE. After WWII, there was a substantial, pervasive increase in marriage rates. Rates fell sharply during the 1970s and have now stabilized. Age at marriage has risen by 2 years. Still, more than 90% of American youth expect to marry someday.

B. DIVORCE. Divorce rate rose gradually and steadily from 1860 to 1960. Then there was sustained and rapid increase. About 2% of existing marriages are terminated by divorce each year. About half of current marriages will end if divorce if current rates continue, compared to 5% in the 1860s.

Reasons for high divorce rate: (1) People now expect more of marriage (2) more accepting of divorce - negative attitudes toward divorce have declined (3) Changes in laws, econ circumstances make divorce more feasible. More women are in the labor force; have no-fault divorce laws.

Consequences of divorce: (1) Children suffer. Over a million children are affected by divorce each year. About one of every three white children and 2 of 3 black children born after marriage will experience a marital dissolution by age 16. Most children of divorced parents will live in a fatherless home for at least 5 years. (2) Women suffer financially. CHild support awards often are not large and frequently are not paid. Only about half of payments are made in full. (3) Judicial decisions concerning division of property have started to become more equitable. (4) Women still get custody in 9 of 10 cases.

C. REMARRIAGE. Most family scholars believe that divorce stems from dissatisfaction with a specific spouse and does not represent disillusionment with marriage as an institution. Most divorced people remarry. In 1980, 20% of all existing marriages included at least one previously divorced spouse. Divorce rates among remarriages are as high or higher than the rates for first marriages.

D. COHABITATION. About 2 million couples live together without benefit of matrimony, up from 500,000 in 1970. At least 20% of young persons will cohabit sometime during their lives.

E. UNWED MOTHERS. Adolescent birth rate has actually declined over last 30 years, from a CBR of 90 to a CBR of 51. However, a growing percentage of teenage births have been to unwed mothers. In 1955, only 14% of teenage births were out of wedlock, compared to 56% in 1984. Marriage rates have been declining among teenagers. As a result, more and more of teenage births have been out of wedlock. By the mid 1980s, 89% of children of black teen-age mothers were born out of wedlock, more than double the 1955 rate. Out of wedlock births for white teenagers have also increased substantially. U.S. whites have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and childbearing of any Western nation.

Some consequences: (1) Education gets curtailed. In the US, only 50% of teenage women who give birth before 18 ever complete high school, compared to 96% of those who don't have children before age 20. (2) Women who were teenage mothers earn about 50% of the income of those who first gave birth in their 20s. (3) children of teenage parents are more likely to become teenage parents themselves. (4) 25% of teenage mothers rely on AFDC. Women who has a baby in her teens is more than twice as likely to be on AFDC than a woman who waited till her 20s

It would be nice if the study of interpersonal attraction could offer us some insights into these problems. There is no guarantee that anything useful will develop though. The research Proxmire criticized eventually resulted in the book, A new look at love. The authors of the first edition were listed as Walster and Walster. The latest edition lists the authors as Hatfield and Walster, because they got divorced!

II. Who's available.

a. Those persons with whom we come into contact, no matter how fleeting, constitute the field of availables. Contact is heavily determined by proximity. We are more likely to develop a relationship with someone who is in close physical proximity to us. Why is proximity important?

1. Physical proximity reduces costs of interaction - it is easier to talk with somebody sitting next to you than it is to talk with somebody sitting clear across the room.

2. Repeated exposure can produce a more positive attitude; this is the mere exposure effect.

b. Proximity is affected by:

1. Institutional structures. For example, the admissions office of a school, school tracking policies, etc., help to determine who comes into contact with each other. Effects of school policies on interracial friendships have been a prominent strand of research.

2. Personal characteristics influence the choice of activities. Common interests can lead to people being in the same place at the same time.

III. Who's eligible? Proximity is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for friendship. We chose appropriate candidates from those available. Factors affecting choices are:

A. Social norms - Demographic characteristics. Norm of homogamy - requires that friends, lovers, and spouses be characterized by similarity in age, race, religion, and SES. Differences on one or more of these dimensions make a person less appropriate as a friend, and more appropriate for some other kind of relationship.

EX: Potential dates are single persons of the opposite sex who are of similar age, class, ethnicity, and religion.

EX: The "marriage squeeze" - we have a norm that husbands are slightly older than their wives. (About 2 years.) This has created a shortage of eligible spouses, because of declining birth rates.

EX: A person who is substantially older, but the same in social class and ethnicity, may be appropriate as a mentor, someone who can provide advice about how to manage your career.

B. Norms influence the development of relationships in several ways.

1. We hesitate to establish a relationship with someone who is normatively inappropriate. Hence, a high status person is unlikely to approach a high-status one as a friend.

2. If one person attempts to initiate an inappropriate relationship, the other person will probably refuse to reciprocate.

3. Even if the other person is willing to interact, third parties often enforce the norms that prohibit the relationship.

IV. Who is desirable?

A. Physical attractiveness.

1. We would like to believe that beauty is only skin deep, and therefore, a trivial determinant of liking. Indeed, when asked what they looked for in a potential date, most college students put "physical attractiveness" at the bottom of their list.

2. Looks do matter.

a. Elaine Hatfield randomly matched incoming students at the University of Minnesota for a blind date. The students previously had been given a battery of personality tests. Intelligence, masculinity, femininity, dominance, submission, dependence, independence, sensitivity and sincerity had little effect on liking. The one determinant of whether or not a couple liked each other and actually repeated their date was their physical attractiveness. (Another study, however, looked at long-term dating; it found that couples who were well-matched in terms of physical attractiveness were more deeply involved with each other after 9 months than were those who differed from each other in physical attractiveness.)

b. Biases toward beauty exist even in childhood. Women were asked to examine reports of severe classroom disturbances, apparently written by a teacher. A photo of the child involved was attached. In some cases, the child was physically attractive, in others less attractive. The women tended to place more blame on the less attractive children and to infer that this was typical of their everyday behavior. When the child was pictured as physically attractive, however, the women tended to excuse the disruptive behavior. Attractive children are given the benefit of a doubt.

c. Both male and female college students were allowed to read an account of a criminal case in which the defendant was clearly guilty of the crime. Each subject then sentenced the defendant to a prison term he or she considered appropriate. The results showed that, when the crime was unrelated to attractiveness (burglary) the sentences were much more lenient when the defendant was physically attractive. When the crime was related to her attractiveness (a swindle in which the defendant induced a middle-aged bachelor to invest some money in a non-existent corporation) the sentences were much harsher for the physically attractive defendant. Hence, people tend to favor a beautiful woman unless they suspect her of misusing her beauty.


d. Physically attractive people receive more assistance from others

e. Physically attractive people receive more cooperation in conflict situations

f. Physically attractive people receive better job recommendations from experienced personnel consultants, even when personal appearance could have no conceivable relationship to actual job performance

g. Physically attractive people receive more self-disclosure from others.

2. Why is this?

a. Aesthetics.

b. Physically attractive people do indeed tend to have better self-concepts, probably because of treatment received from others.

EX: Subjects were shown pictures of attractive or unattractive women, whom they then had phone conversations with (the pictures did not depict their actual partner). The subjects who thought they were talking with an attractive partner rated her as more poised, humorous, and socially adept than did those who thought they were talking with a less attractive woman. When independent observers were allowed to listen to a tape recording of only the woman's half of the conversation (without looking at a photograph) they were far more impressed by the woman whose male partner thought she was physically attractive. Since the male partner thought he was talking to an attractive woman, he spoke to her in a way that brought out her best and most sparkling qualities. Thus, physically attractive people may come to think of themselves as good because they are continually treated that way.

c. A man with an extremely attractive woman attracts more attention and prestige than if he is seen with an unattractive female.

d. "What is beautiful is good" belief - we assume that a physically attractive person possesses other desirable qualities. One study showed that physically attractive people were thought to be more sensitive, kind, interesting, strong, modest, and sexually responsive than less attractive persons.

3. HOWEVER, people do NOT always approach those who are the most physically attractive. Anticipation of acceptance or rejection affects whether or not the attractive are approached.

B. Competence.

1. We might think that, all other things being equal, the more competent an individual is, the more we will like them. We stand a better chance of being right if we surround ourselves with highly able, highly competent people.

2. However, studies suggest that, in problem-solving groups, the participants who are considered the most competent and to have the best ideas tend not to be the ones who are best liked. It could be that a person who has a great deal of ability makes us feel uncomfortable - the person may seem unapproachable, distant, superhuman.

3. There was a study done in which there were four experimental conditions. It had a person of superior ability who bungled (spilled coffee on himself); a superior person who did not bungle; a person of average ability who bungled; an average person who did not bungle. The superior person who committed a blunder was the most popular; next was the perfect person who did not blunder; then the average person who did not blunder; last was the average person who blundered. Hence, while a high degree of competence does make us appear more attractive, some evidence of fallibility increases our attractiveness still further.

EX: John Kennedy's popularity actually went up after the Bay of Pigs Fiasco. It could be that Kennedy was seen as too perfect. He was young, handsome witty, the author of a best-seller, a war hero, had a beautiful wife and two cute kids. Some evidence of fallibility (like being responsible for a major blunder) may have made him look more human in the public eye and hence, more likeable.

C. Helpfulness.

1. We tend to like people who do favors for us, but not always. We do not like people whose favors seem as though they have strings attached to them. People do not like to receive gifts if a gift is expected in return; moreover, people do not like to receive favors from individuals who are in a position to benefit from that favor.

2. Getting someone to do you a favor is a more certain way of using favors to enhance your attractiveness. If we do someone a favor, we can justify this action by convincing ourselves that the recipient of this favor is an attractive, likable, deserving person.

EX: Ben Franklin was having trouble with a colleague in the Pennsylvania state legislature. Franklin asked if he could borrow a rare book of his, which his colleague sent immediately. After that, they became good friends. Franklin concluded that "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged."

D. Similarity vs. complementarity.

1. Evidence suggests we are attracted to people who are similar to ourselves. Attitudinal similarity is especially important. Why? Cognitive consistency. If you have favorable attitudes toward certain objects and discover that another person has favorable attitudes toward those objects, your cognitions will be consistent if you like that person. Similar others reinforce our opinions. We expect that similar others will approve of us - we prefer to develop friendships with those we think will evaluate us favorably.

2. Little evidence that complementarity is important. Evidence suggests people often choose as mates those who have the same weaknesses they do. What we may need to do is look more at role compatibility - a traditional husband and a feminist housewife may not get along too well.

E. Reciprocation. The single most powerful determinant of whether one person will like another is whether the other likes that person. We expect friendship choices to be reciprocated.

1. Work by Hallinan and others shows that when choices are not reciprocated, friendships fade.

2. Two subjects met with each other. Researchers led some subjects to believe that the other subject liked them while others were led to believe they were disliked. In a subsequent interaction, those individuals who thought they were liked behaved in more likable ways. Moreover, subjects who believed they were liked were, in fact, liked by the other subject, while those who believed they were disliked were not liked by the other subject. Partners tended to mirror the behavior of the subjects with whom they were paired.

F. Self-esteem of a person affects who they see as attractive.

1. The more insecure we feel, the more we like someone who likes us.

2. A person who feels insecure may even seek out a less-attractive person in order to diminish the possibility of being rejected.

3. One study found that males with low self-esteem are attracted more to a traditional woman, and males with high self-esteem tend to be attracted more to a nontraditional (i.e. feminist) woman. Male prejudice against feminists and other nontraditional women may stem, in part, from a man's attempt to bolster his self-esteem in the face of a perceived threat. A self-assured man has no need to derogate an assertive, independent woman.

IV. What is love?

A. Liking does not = love.

1. Romantic love often has a swift onset, while liking often appears to grow gradually

2. Mild forms of attraction are relatively stable, more intense forms are more volatile

3. Love is characterized by attachment, caring for the welfare of the other, intimacy, liking is characterized by affection and respect

4. Behavior toward loved ones includes self-disclosure, giving both material and nonmaterial benefits, expressions of affection.

B. Romantic Love ideal

1. True love can strike without prior interaction (love at first sight)

2. For each of us, there is only one other person who will inspire true love

3. True love can overcome any obstacle (Love conquers all)

4. Our beloved is nearly perfect

5. We should follow our feelings - that is, we should base our choice of partners on love rather than on other (more rational) considerations.

C. There are many types of love

1. Altruistic love. Care about other person's welfare. Don't even necessarily like the people. "Brotherly love"

2. Attachment. Want to be physically close to another even if you don't like them. Proximity promoting behavior.

3. Companionate love. Passionate love inevitably simmers down. Then, if the love is to endure, it settles to a steady, warm afterglow that Hatfield labels companionate love - a deep, affectionate attachment.