The Real Reasons You’re Attractive, According to Science

Your mother was right: Looks really aren't everything. Attraction is more about chemistry than cosmetics.

Humans’ quest to find out how to be more attractive to potential romantic and reproductive partners dates back to ancient times. For an example, look no further than ancient Egypt, where people across genders wore makeup, jewelry, and wigs to enhance their physical appearance. (Although findings from 21st-century research indicates that each of these techniques may have served multiple purposes, like kohl eyeliner being used to reduce the glare of the sun.) Much more recently—in the 18th century, that is—upper-class men and women in pre–Revolutionary War America also relied on makeup to appear more alluring.

But as it turns out, most of that—not to mention our current unattainable societal standards of beauty—might not even matter: When it comes to human attraction, it’s all about science. The human brain and body are pretty amazing and work in ways most people don’t even realize, including determining what makes other people attractive. And it goes far beyond whether a person has even an skin tone or a haircut that works for the shape of their face. Instead, it’s a combination of feelings, scents, and more. If you’ve ever wondered how to be more attractive, you may have more luck finding the answers in your high school biology textbook than a department store makeup counter. Here are some of the real reasons people are attractive, according to science. Plus, check out these style secrets of women who always look put together.

Why science is the key to human attraction

Most people, at some point or another, have experienced the feeling of infatuation—or at least found themselves in a situation where they couldn’t stop staring at someone they found physically attractive. Sure, you could write that off as having a “type,” but that still doesn’t explain why that person, in particular, caught your eye. (More on that in a minute.) But what about when you’re drawn to someone who isn’t, let’s say, “conventionally attractive”? There’s really where science enters the picture—although it’s still not entirely clear how it all works.

“The mechanisms of human attraction are not fully understood, but involve basic hormonally-modified brain circuitry across many mammal species,” Alicia A. Walf, PhD, senior lecturer in the cognitive science department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, tells Reader’s Digest. “[Understanding] these mechanisms of human attraction can also reveal basic mechanisms of other motivated and rewarding behaviors, which are likely to be shared.”

For example, scientific research into attraction can help shed light on other complex aspects of being human that involve changes in hormones, physiology, and emotions—like stress. “Positive human connections are the most powerful tool for reducing stress, so investigating the science of human attraction gives us insights into the role of motivated and social behaviors for stress reduction,” Walf explains. Here are a few other examples of scientific research into topics including how to be more attractive and the unexpected characteristics we’re drawn to in other people. And yes, science helps us figure out the other side of that coin, too: Check out these surprising things that make you less attractive.

The nose knows (the way to your heart)

As it turns out, what you smell and hear may play a major role in who you pursue, according to a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology. To get a better idea of the way attractiveness is perceived, Agata Groyecka-Bernard, PhD, a researcher at the University of Wrocław in Poland, and her co-authors analyzed 30 years of research on human attraction and found that beauty is far more than skin-deep. It also involves other components, like how we respond to a person’s natural aroma and their speaking voice. For example, she found that while we are visually attracted to people with similar genotypes, once we get close with that special someone, we tend to prefer the odor of a mate with a dissimilar genetic background. The combination of the two preferences could help steer us to complementary genetic mates. The main takeaway? The tone of someone’s voice and even their scent can make an impression on you when you first meet them—even if you don’t realize it. Here are 7 sneaky things your voice can predict about your personality and health.

It’s all about that dopamine

As we’ve already established, human attraction is seriously complex. A lot of that has to do with the cascades of hormones that are released in the body and brain when we experience the rush of being attracted to someone. And, according to Walf, those hormones play a role in the social behavior of mammals, including humans. In her own research, Walf has investigated the brain mechanisms in mammals like rodents, where the links between hormones and social behaviors are more established. Despite the size difference, she explains that it’s thought that humans operate in a similar way.

For example, these hormonal mechanisms are involved in the emotional and memory changes associated with attraction. “Much like the excitement we experience when facing stress that we enjoy—like riding roller coasters—dopamine and norepinephrine are involved in human attraction,” Walf explains. “Dopamine release is associated with positive emotions and consolidating experiences that we have and that we enjoy, in memory, further propelling us to seek out these feelings in social interactions.” If you’re trying to create those positive emotions while online dating, add these words to your profile ASAP.

The truth about playing hard to get

Everyone has their own idea of how to be more attractive, and for many, this involves playing hard to get. But does that strategy actually work, or does it just make it take longer to establish a trusting relationship with a potential partner? According to research out of the University of Rochester and published in June 2020 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, it does the former. “People who are too easy to attract may be perceived as more desperate,” Gurit Birnbaum, PhD, a social psychologist and co-author of the study, explains in a statement. “That makes them seem less valuable and appealing than those who do not make their romantic interest apparent right away.”

The joys of giving

As it turns out, all those commercials during the holiday season talking about the “joy of giving” as a way to sell their perfume and sweaters are actually onto something. A 2020 study out of Indiana University published in the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly found that we find generous people more physically attractive. “Poets and philosophers have suggested the link between moral and physical beauty for centuries,” Sara Konrath, PhD, an associate professor of philanthropic studies and co-author of the article, said in a statement. “This study confirms that people who are perceived as more attractive are more likely to give—and givers are seen as more attractive.” And if you do want to boost your clothing game, here are 13 outfit tricks that make you look younger.

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Elizabeth Yuko
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.