Love at First Smell? Dr. Oz Explains (2:44)
It’s the mysterious spark that inspires pop songs and moves armies. You might have even experienced it for yourself — that instant physical chemistry that can be difficult to understand, let alone control. Yet scientists have spent decades researching the mental and physical processes that influence attraction.
We spoke with Leah Baldwin, LCSW, CSAC, a counselor and social worker at Parham Doctors' Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, to learn why you’re irresistibly drawn to some people, and how to turn that initial physical chemistry into a healthy long-term relationship.
The psychology of attraction
Whether you’re in the “butterflies” phase of a romance or 20 years in, attraction may be largely based on whether you unconsciously identify someone as a stable, healthy partner for the long haul. In fact, humans may be hardwired to see traits that could help ensure survival as sexy, according to some psychologists.
On a purely physical level, this can mean heterosexual men are often drawn to female partners that look healthy or fertile. For example, hair tends to become thin and dull in times of sickness, so thick, shiny hair may be considered attractive. Straight men also tend to favor smaller waist-to-hip ratios in women. Why? Possibly because chronic illnesses like diabetes change fat distribution, making waist-to-hip ratio an indicator of health. This ratio fluctuates slightly with menstruation as well, and women may be more fertile when it’s lower, according to some research.
Physical signs of health impress women too, but studies suggest they think about many more factors than men when gauging attractiveness. For example, they might find thick hair appealing, but they’ll probably take signs of stability or prosperity into consideration as well. Those could include symbols of wealth like a luxury apartment, social intelligence like a group of close friends, or education level like the ability to speak multiple languages.
“But a lot of this is environmental,” Baldwin adds. “It's difficult to say that you’re biologically primed, versus conditioned, to find someone appealing.” Everyone’s preferences are unique — there are plenty of differences not just between men and women, but also among individuals. There are many factors that affect how you interpret someone’s traits, such as your culture, past relationship experiences, whether you’re looking for casual sex or a relationship, and more.
Do certain physical traits matter to both men and women?
Studies indicate there are a few simple things anyone can do to up their allure:
- Stand up straight: A 2016 experiment involving 144 speed dates revealed that open body language — chest up, shoulders back — significantly increased a person’s chance of getting a second date.
- Get a full night’s rest: In a small study from 2010, people were photographed after a good night’s rest and then again after being awake for 31 hours. When strangers observed the photos, people were rated as less healthy and less attractive without sleep.
- Have a calm presence: Being neurotic, or getting stressed out easily, is generally seen as unattractive in both men and women. It’s also linked to a greater chance of relationships breaking up over time.
What about pheromones?
No doubt you’ve heard of pheromones, the odorless molecules your body releases to send signals, such as attraction, to others. Even though pheromones are scentless, people detect them unconsciously through smell; for example, in one study, women preferred the scent of sweaty T-shirts from men who’d produce genetically healthy offspring. That makes pheromones an easy marketing tool for beauty companies.
If it makes you feel beautiful, an “aphrodisiac” perfume is worth the investment, but the science behind these modern love potions isn’t completely sound. While researchers have identified specific mating chemicals in the animal kingdom, they’ve had a hard time pinpointing exactly which molecules signal desire among humans. They need to learn more before these chemicals can actually be bottled and sold.
Related: Aphrodisiac Foods
Attraction is more than just physical
"Pheromones might contribute to that instant chemistry,” says Baldwin. “But psychology — how people behave and why — also contributes and will really determine whether a relationship lasts.”
Both men and women, for example, find intelligence highly desirable, according to numerous studies. Helpfulness and conscientiousness — rather than laziness — are also considered turn-ons for most people.
Once you get beyond that early phase of intense attraction, you begin — either consciously or unconsciously — to rely on your ideals and shared values, and that will carry your connection during later phases, Baldwin explains.
“I think it's important to put all these factors — physical and emotional — in the mixing bowl. You can take advantage of what science says [in regards to attraction]. But temper it with what you know; your own experiences and an understanding of what’s important to you long term.”