These Are The 4 Elements of Attraction, According to Psychology

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash

What defines attraction?

It’s a question many people ask themselves frequently — at the start of a new relationship, the possibility of a new crush, or when exploring dating possibilities. The branch of psychology that is known as social psychology has roots in examining interpersonal relations, and using psychological evidence to investigate and bring clarity to this concept.

I have studied psychology for the last two years, and learned so much in the process. One of the things that has really impacted my relationships (both romantic and platonic) is the idea of the Four Elements of Interpersonal Attraction. After studying them, I was able to critically examine how they fit into my own life — and how they present in society. The four elements of interpersonal attraction are proximity, similarity, physical attractiveness, and reciprocity.

Let’s walk through them.

The element of proximity in attraction means that people are more likely to be attracted to someone who is in close proximity to them. Sometimes this can mean physical proximity — for instance, a New Yorker on Tinder would be more likely to be attracted to another New Yorker that they see on Tinder rather than someone who lives in Los Angeles. However, proximity more commonly refers to social proximity as well, specifically within communities, schools, and workplaces. For example, if you are a high school student, you’re more likely to be attracted to someone who goes to your school rather than someone who does not.

The element of similarity means exactly what you’d think — it means that people are more likely to be attracted to people who have similar traits to them. This information may conflict with attraction theories you might’ve heard previously with the hypothesis that opposites attract — there is more evidence in psychology to suggest the contrary! For example, people who are introverted are more likely to be attracted to other introverts, Democrats are more likely to be attracted to other Democrats, etc.

The element of physical attractiveness is also pretty self-explanatory. It means that people are more likely to be emotionally or romantically attracted to people that they also find physically attractive. Each person has their own idea of physical attractiveness, though, so each case and preference of “physical attractiveness” will look different.

The element of reciprocity is the idea that people are more likely to be attracted to people who are also attracted to them. If you know someone who likes you or expresses their feelings for you, you might feel more inclined to like them back (many of us have experienced a situation like this before!). Knowing someone has feelings for you can serve as fuel for attraction. Please note, though, that this does not happen in every case, or even nearly every case. The reciprocity element of attraction is most popular in safe, close relationships. No one should feel pressured or guilted into liking someone because of reciprocity, especially if they are being objectified by the other party.

Why do the four elements of attraction work?

The four elements of attraction were formulated based on the reward theory. The reward theory is another psychological concept which states that people naturally have a preference for situations that require minimal effort, but still produce great benefits.

Being in close proximity to someone means it doesn’t take as much work or concerted effort to see them or coordinate ways to spend time with them.

Being similar to someone means that there are already a great number of things that can fuel your relationship and help you facilitate a meaningful bond, without much digging below the surface. If there are lots of similarities from the get-go, it requires less effort to find what you have in common with the other person.

Finding someone physically attractive means that they are pleasing to you; not much work will go into that. If you feel that someone is attractive, that feeling is usually unobstructed by other matters.

And lastly, having someone in your world who already likes you (or likes you back after you liked them) means that there is less work to be done to spark your relationship. One party already had the interest, and it is fairly simple for the other party to feel mutually and to build a relationship off of that.

Basically, when it all comes down to it, the reward theory — and subsequently, the four elements of attraction — is about weighing the benefits vs. the work. Proximity, similarity, physical attractiveness, and reciprocity are all factors that can spark a relationship and foster a bond, yet they require minimal work to accomplish such attraction (or a later relationship). It is human nature to seek out experiences that can provide us with what we need without the demand for us to have a strong role in working to construct a relationship from scratch, in the absence of these ideas.

How do the four elements of attraction fit into our lives?

You decide! Do any of these resonate with you, or do they sound too scientific and superficial? Each person is different in terms of relationships. The four elements of attraction only speak to the organic patterns produced by the history of human nature, but psychology is not always one-size-fits-all. It’s up to you: could you consider these ideas in your romantic/sexual/dating life, or do you prefer to construct your own experiences outside of these factors?


*My source for this article comes from the Revel Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding, 4th Edition textbook (published 2017) that I used while studying psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Writer. Creator. Teacher. Feminist. Just trying to spread love, talk about equity, and be a good human. She/her. Follow me on Instagram @brooklynxreece!

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