Interpersonal attraction - Social psychology

Psychology: an introduction (Oxford Southern Africa) - Leslie Swartz 2011

Interpersonal attraction
Social psychology

Peace Kiguwa & Noleen Pillay


After studying this chapter you should be able to:

•describe the concept of interpersonal attraction

•explain the differences between internal and external determinants of attraction

•construct the key theoretical accounts of attraction

•explain the different attachment styles in intimate relationships

•discuss the different types of love in relationships

•describe the concept of loneliness.


Melinda had been in a romantic relationship with Nhlanhla for six months and wanted to marry him some day. However, her family had voiced their concerns about the relationship. They thought Melinda would be better off with someone from her own social class and ethnic group, who shared the same customs and cultural practices. Almost all of Melinda’s friends were in relationships with someone of the same social class and ethnic group and Melinda started to feel that she should do the same. When she reflected on her relationship with Nhlanhla, she reminded herself of how much he shared her lifestyle interests and how she was attracted to his drive and ambition. However, she was reluctant to disappoint her parents.


Social psychologists believe that one of the most basic needs of human beings is the desire to have a sense of belonging and to experience warm and positive relationships. This need may be expressed differently in different societies and cultures, but is essentially the same throughout the world. This need to experience relationships of positive regard with others may be considered a central antecedent to interpersonal attraction. Attraction between individuals may result from various factors that include both internal and external influences. These factors are evident in Melinda’s situation.

Social psychologists can explain Melinda’s dilemma by looking at these influences in different ways. Individual-level explanations focus on Melinda’s internal disposition, such as being attracted to men who are ambitious and driven. Situational-level explanations focus on the specific situational contexts that influence Melinda’s choices and the reasons for her uncertainty, such as her friends’ relationships and the lifestyle interests she shares with Nhlanhla. Positional-level explanations focus on Melinda’s social and ethnic group membership and how these factors influence her decisions. Ideological-level explanations also consider her group membership but with a concentrated focus on how being part of a group may influence Melinda’s own ideological beliefs about ideal partner choices.

In this chapter we review the main theories that account for interpersonal attraction. We explore the determining factors that often accompany or influence how individuals experience attraction to each other in their intimate relationships. Through our discussion of social exchange theory, equity theory, evolutionary theory and sociocultural theory, we explore some of the key concepts in the study of attraction. This discussion will further include an exploration of the main types of love that may exist in intimate relationships, including infatuation, companionate love and consummate love. We also briefly discuss the different styles of attachment that exist in intimate relationships and lastly look at issues of loneliness and friendship.


The likelihood that we will be attracted to individuals who make us feel good or who evoke pleasant emotions within us has been shown to be a significant factor in the role of emotions in interpersonal attraction (Shiota, Campos, Keltner & Hertenstein, 2004). This direct linking of feelings and emotions with attraction highlights the importance of positive and negative emotions in determining whether we will be attracted to another person. For example, we are more likely to be drawn to a stranger who compliments us on our appearance than one who makes us feel unattractive. In this sense, we can say that emotions have a direct effect on attraction. Similarly, Shiota et al. (2004) report on a study on children with Down Syndrome who tend to smile less than normal children. Some parents of these children reported that they were ’less rewarding’ than their other children because they did not smile as intensely.

On the other hand, there may be times when negative or positive emotions are aroused in us which we associate with a particular person who happens to be present at the time, regardless of whether or not they are the cause of these emotions. This, in turn, will influence our attraction to them. For example, we may tend to dislike a person simply because he/she happened to be present when we received particularly bad news. This behaviour is referred to as an associated effect on attraction because it occurs when someone else is present when the positive or negative emotional state is aroused and that person then becomes associated with that event and emotion.

Internal determinants of attraction

The role of basic needs in interpersonal attraction

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow has been noted for his conceptualisation of a fundamental hierarchy of needs (see Chapter 5). Maslow believed that people would seek to fulfill their most basic physical needs (like food, sleep and water) before attending to more complex psychological needs. For Maslow, the highest order need is self-actualisation (the realisation of our full potential as human beings). However, among the basic needs discussed by Maslow, fulfilling the need for belonging and affiliation (connection) with others is considered to be necessary for optimal human functioning.


Figure 16.1 A feeling of belonging and affiliation (connection) with others is considered to be necessary for optimal human functioning

As argued by Maslow’s theory, the need to affiliate with or share a sense of belonging with others is fundamental to our well-being as individuals (Baumeister & Leary, 1995); indeed, this need for affiliation may be seen as essential to our existence as human beings (Baron, Branscombe & Byrne, 2009). Thus, the need for affiliation with others may be considered to be an internal determinant of interpersonal attraction. While the need for affiliation may be intrinsic to our psychological needs as human beings, there may be differences in the way we experience the degree and nature of our affiliations (Baron et al., 2009). For example, some individuals may tend to be more introverted in their social relations with others (enjoying relationships with just a few individuals) while others may demonstrate more extroverted attitudes and behaviour (and have many relationships). Therefore, the basic need to seek and maintain interpersonal relationships will be expressed differently for different people.

If people’s needs for affiliation are not appropriately met (according to their specific needs), they may feel ignored and hurt and such social exclusion can lead to poorer cognitive functioning (Baron et al., 2009). On the other hand, a small number of people claim to have no need for personal attachments and prefer to ’avoid close relationships’ (Baron et al., 2009, p. 227).

Can our emotions and moods influence our attractions?

The need for affiliation may be situationally dependent on various factors. In other words, we may feel the need or desire to affiliate based on the positive feelings that others evoke in us or the positive events that occur simult aneously in the presence of others (Baron et al., 2009). Psychologists often use the term ’affect’ to refer to emotions and moods that we may be experiencing. The importance of affect for understanding interpersonal attraction may be illustrated in the following case example:

Nosipho is an attractive, intelligent and confident young woman who has been in a steady relationship with her partner for almost five years. Recently, she survived an almost fatal car accident that left her paralysed from the waist down. Although she and her partner are in couples therapy following the accident and remain committed to their relationship, Nosipho has been feeling very unattractive and useless and has increasingly experienced intense feelings of depression about her body image, as well as doubts about her partner’s attraction to her. These feelings have had a significantly negative impact on the relationship with the result that she and her partner are thinking of separating.

The above example demonstrates the role that affect can play in our thought processes (e.g. Nosipho’s thoughts about herself as useless), the decisions that we make (to see a psychologist and to contemplate separation) and our sense of interpersonal attraction (Nosipho feels unattractive now that she cannot walk). Thus, our emotional state — whether sad, angry, happy — will influence how we think about ourselves and others, as well as whether we feel a need to affiliate or belong with others.

Two important characteristics of affect also come into play here: the intensity and direction of our emotion. The intensity of our emotion refers to the strength of our feelings at any given moment, while the direction of our emotion refers to the positive or negative nature of our feelings. Sometimes, we may respond to particular events and encounters with ambivalent feelings that may be positive at one moment and negative the next. Often our own genetic predisposition may influence whether we respond to events with positive or negative affect.


Figure 16.2 If your favourite team wins, your positive emotions will have an influence on how you react to other events happening in your life

However, we may also be influenced by the specific nature of the event or circumstance. For example, if you receive news that you did not perform well on a test you wrote just after you became engaged, it is likely that you will not feel strong negative emotions about your test performance because you are excited and happy about your engagement. In this instance, the emotional intensity and direction about your test is not very strong or negative. Another example is the performance of South Africa in the African Cup of Nations in January 2015. You may have experienced emotions of happiness and joy when the South African team took the lead in all three of their matches, only to go on to draw or lose the matches. In this instance, you would be experiencing positive and negative emotions very close together. Your disappointment at the team’s poor performance may make you view your partner more negatively.

Our moods and feelings in response to external events can also influence our desire to affiliate or interact with others. Again, there are likely to be individual differences in how we respond to emotionally stressful events. For example, think of the last time you wrote a particularly stressful test. You may have felt a strong desire to be by yourself and not interact with friends or peers because you were feeling unhappy about your performance in the test. On the other hand, another student may have felt equally unhappy about his performance, but with the opposite reaction. He may have felt he wanted to spend time with other classmates, discussing and bonding over the difficulty of the test. In both instances, the person’s response to an external event (the test) was influenced by his/her different needs to affiliate. Similarly, social psychologists have demonstrated how external events such as natural disasters strongly influence people’s desire to come together and interact as a means of comfort and solidarity (Jacob, Mawson, Payton & Guignard, 2008).

The link between affect and attraction is commonly utilised by advertising agencies. One goal of advertising is to arouse people’s emotions and as long as the ’right’ (i.e. positive) emotions are activated, people are more likely to buy a product or vote for a political candidate (Baron et al., 2009).

External determinants of attraction

External determinants of attraction exist outside of the individual, and can encourage (or discourage!) liking between people. We saw above how external events like a test can influence mood and thereby indirectly influence attraction. In this section, we consider several environmental and other influences that may affect interpersonal attraction and the development of intimacy. These influences include: proximity or geographical closeness, similarity, physical attractiveness, and reciprocity effects.


Research has shown that attraction is more likely to develop between individuals who share/occupy the same physical space or context (Zajonc, 2001). The term ’ proximity’ refers to the close physical space that individuals repeatedly find themselves in that allows for them to meet one another (Breckler, Olson & Wiggins, 2006). For example, students at a university attending the same class together (especially if they sit in seats nearby each other) or people living in the same street or community are likely to experience positive feelings towards each other and develop an attraction simply from seeing each other often. Furthermore, by means of the repeated exposure effect, also known as the mere exposure effect, the frequency of these contacts/meetings increases the familiarity between people, thereby amplifying the attraction and, in some cases, even leading to marriage (cited in Baron, Byrne & Branscombe, 2007).


Figure 16.3 People are likely to experience positive feelings towards each other and develop an attraction simply from seeing each other often

The classic study by Festinger, Schachter and Back (1950, in Aronson, Wilson & Akert, 2007) revealed that married students who resided in a housing complex reported making friends with individuals who lived in the same building as they did, and not with others from other complexes, even though the other complexes were not far away. Even more surprising results showed that a higher proportion of students reported being close friends with their next-door neighbours within the complex, instead of other residents in the complex. Festinger and colleagues (1950 cited in Aronson et al., 2007) referred to the concept of functional distance, meaning the specific features of architectural design that encourage some people to come into contact with each other more often than with others. An example of this would be a stairway that only a particular group of residents will commonly use, which will make it more likely for them to see each other more regularly than any of the other residents.

However, there is some debate about just how much influence proximity has in interpersonal attraction. Some research (Breckler et al., 2006) demonstrates that the old saying ’familiarity breeds contempt’ may sometimes be accurate. This study showed that living within close proximity of one another could also lead to dislike between neighbours. This would be a result of aspects of the living environment where, for example, one neighbour may annoy or upset another by doing things like parking across their driveway or by being loud and noisy.


The familiar idiom ’birds of a feather flock together’ suggests the importance of similarity in influencing and sustaining attraction between people. It seems obvious that individuals should share at least some similarities with each other in order to perpetuate their attraction. Thus, an individual’s attraction to another can often be attributed to the similarities that they might share in their attitudes, thoughts, behaviours, lifestyle choices, hobbies, music, religion, political views, personality and experiences (Aronson, et al., 2007; Breckler et al., 2006). Studies on attitudes have specifically demonstrated the attitude similarity effect, in which people are likely to develop an attraction to someone when they discover that they have more in common with them in relation to their attitudes, beliefs and preferences (cited in Breckler et al., 2006).

We may sometimes not be able to understand the union of two people, because they outwardly appear to be different from one another. They may, however, share similarities that are not immediately obvious or evident to the observer. On the other hand, individuals who have widely opposing beliefs, personalities and lifestyles may also be successful in attracting each other. Such occurrences have been referred to as the theory of complementarity, or ’opposites attract’ (Gilovich, Keltner & Nisbett, 2006).

Physical attractiveness

Research shows that both males and females report physical attractiveness to be highly significant when choosing a partner, especially for a romantic attraction (Weiten, 2007). Furthermore, physical attractiveness has been demonstrated to be more important for females than males (Weiten, 2007). One study used peer ratings to investigate attractiveness among college students and found that females reported a stronger positive association (as indicated by the correlation statistic) between physical attractiveness and romantic popularity (0.76) compared to their male counterparts (0.47) (Speed & Gangestad, 1997 cited in Weiten, 2007).

Both males and females tend to prefer physically attractive people and many of us rely on physical attractiveness to make assumptions about other people. This is known as the attractiveness stereotype and it can be quite deceptive as it suggests that ’what is beautiful is good’ (DeLamater & Myers, 2007, p. 332). This stereotype has also been labeled the halo effect and it allows individuals to associate positive and desirable characteristics with people who are considered physically attractive (Gilovich et al., 2006).

Different cultures within a society contribute to the diverse conceptions of beauty which inevitably exist (Aronson et al., 2007; Baron et al., 2007) and these provide the social norms that influence who we are attracted to and what physical features we look for when choosing a mate/partner. For example, research has demonstrated that a number of specific features play a crucial role in influencing the physical attractiveness of an individual (Aronson et al., 2007; Baron et al., 2007; Breckler et al., 2006; Gilovich et al., 2006). These features include:

•facial composition, consisting of the configuration of the features on the face (like the eyes, nose, mouth, and so on), as well as their proportion to each other

•body shape



For example, in some cultures, thicker, more full lips are considered beautiful whereas other cultures regard thinner lips as attractive. Likewise, the attractiveness of weight and body size of an individual varies across cultures. Some characteristics are additionally influenced by the era or time period in which people live. This has particularly been the case for body shape and size where, at one time, curvier women (e.g. Marilyn Monroe) were regarded as beautiful and at another time, women who appeared very thin (e.g. the model Twiggy) were favoured. Thus, both culture and time have undoubtedly been influential in determining what constitutes physical beauty and what is appropriate and ’normal’ for any particular society. Individuals rely on these social norms to assist them in choosing partners who are similar in regard to age, race, religion, and so on. Choosing partners who may be similar to oneself in some characteristics has been labeled the norm of homogamy (Kerckhoff, 1974 cited in DeLamater & Myers, 2007).


Source: Adapted from Montoya et al. (2008)

The ’similarity effect’ has been supported by a great deal of anecdotal and empirical evidence. The effect has been found for attitudes, physical attractiveness, personality traits and hobbies and has been studied in the laboratory context as well as field settings. However, despite these robust findings, some researchers have disputed them, saying that the similarity is primarily evident in laboratory research or in studies where there is experimental manipulation of similarity (i.e. rather than in existing relationships). Researchers have also raised the distinction between actual similarity and perceived similarity (how much partners believe they are alike). Previous research and theoretical considerations suggest that perceived similarity should be more important for attraction (for consistency, people may delude themselves that they are more like their partners).

Montoya et al. (2008) conducted a meta-analysis of many previous studies to examine these effects. Their results showed that perceived similarity does indeed predict attraction whereas actual similarity does not. In their discussion, Montoya et al. (2008) also note that attraction may lead to perceived similarity. This supports our self-esteem and sense of consistency. Montoya et al. (2008) also found that actual similarity did not reduce conflict in relationships or help to prolong relationships. So, it seems that similarity does lead to attraction, but only ’in the laboratory setting, not in existing relationships’ (Montoya et al., 2008, p. 907). Montoya et al. (2008) conclude that researchers should pay more attention to factors that are stronger predictors of attraction, such as reciprocal liking, physical attractiveness and commitment.

Other social characteristics like race/ethnicity, age, religion and socio-economic status, although not related to physical attractiveness, can be equally or perhaps even more influential in attracting individuals to particular people (DeLamater & Myers, 2007). During the apartheid regime, for example, people from different races were not allowed to mix with each other, and interracial marriage was illegal. This legal prohibition forced people to marry individuals from the same race only, and made it very difficult to have any intimate relationships with members from another race.

Reciprocity effect

The reciprocity effect refers to the process of being attracted to someone whom we positively evaluate and who likes us in return (Baron et al., 2007). The reciprocity effect increases with awareness of the other’s positive feelings. It may also include a combination of factors such as proximity and physical attractiveness.

The idea of reciprocity is also linked to the way relationships can be socially rewarding (Fitness, Fletcher & Overall, 2003). According to social exchange theory (see below), relationships evolve over time depending on the nature and amount of social reward the partners exchange (Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005). In this instance, reciprocity can be thought of as ’repayment in kind’ and there are certain rules that govern this exchange (Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005):


Figure 16.4 Reciprocity involves giving and receiving in a relationship

•The exchange indicates a mutual and complementary interdependence between the parties.

•There is a ’folk belief’ that people get what they deserve.

•There is some kind of moral obligation to reciprocate, and those who do not are punished.


•All human beings need to have a sense of belonging and to experience warm and positive relationships. Interpersonal attraction may develop from aspects at the individual, situational or positional levels.

•There are a number of internal determinants of attraction. According to Maslow, fulfillment of the human need for affiliation is fundamental to well-being. Our moods and emotions may also affect how we respond to others. This is influenced by the intensity of emotions, as well as whether they are positive or negative in nature.

•External determinants of attraction exist outside of the individual, and can encourage or discourage liking between people:

”Geographical closeness or proximity provides the conditions for repeated exposure to other people. This leads to familiarity which (usually) increases attraction.

”Similarity between people can also influence and sustain attraction. Important similarities may be in attitudes, thoughts, behaviours, lifestyle choices, hobbies, music, religion, political views, personality and experiences. On the other hand, complementarity may apply as opposites can also attract each other.

”Physical attractiveness is important in attraction. The halo effect suggests that people who are beautiful are seen as also having other positive and desirable characteristics. Different cultures vary in terms of what physical aspects (height, weight, shape and facial features) are considered to be beautiful. We also tend to choose people who are physically similar to ourselves.

”We tend to be attracted to people we like and who like us in return (the reciprocity effect). Reciprocal social relationships can be rewarding.

Theories of interpersonal attraction

Theories are useful in explaining social psychological phenomena and several have been developed to do just this. However, only a few have focused on understanding interpersonal attraction. Accordingly, four theoretical approaches have been identified which are relevant to this chapter. For each approach, a brief description and its basic principles will be presented. Thereafter, its contribution to explaining interpersonal attraction will be discussed.

Social exchange theory

Social exchange theory, we would argue, provides a clear and simple approach to understanding attraction and social behaviour. Essentially, it focuses on social relationships as exchanges of resources or services between people (DeLamater & Myers, 2007). People are more likely to engage in relationships that produce much higher rewards than costs. For example, a woman who partners with a physically attractive man may regard his physical appearance as a reward if it enhances her own social status. At the same time, he may have annoying habits that represent a cost to her. She will eventually have to weigh the rewards and costs of being in the relationship and decide whether the reward of increased social status outweighs the cost of putting up with his annoying habits.

The outcome of the relationship depends on this comparison between the rewards and the costs. Each person has his/her own comparison level; this refers to the person’s expectations concerning rewards and costs in a relationship. When people’s expectations do not match what they are experiencing within the relationship, their sense of dissatisfaction may urge them to consider alternative relationships that they perceive will better meet their expectations. This is known as the comparison level for alternatives. Social exchange theorists claim that individuals need to acquire much higher rewards than costs in order to want to continue in a relationship and not seek an alternative relationship.

Equity theory

Equity denotes a sense or state of justice and fairness. Equity theory attempts to deal with the idea of justice and fairness in human relationships (Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994) and it has been used to understand different contexts of human interactions and relationships such as business and intergroup relations. This approach provides an argument for fair and equal contribution of costs and rewards (Aronson et al., 2007). The central argument of equity theory is that human beings are not just out to receive rewards but we also desire a sense of justice in our relationships. In other words, we do not just want to receive rewards from our partners but also want to feel that our efforts and rewards are indeed equal to our partner’s. Any sense or feeling that we are putting in more effort than our partner is likely to cause feelings of unease, unhappiness and even anger in the relationship.

But what happens when we put in less effort and yet reap more rewards or at least the same rewards as our partners? Will we experience similar feelings of unease and unhappiness? Spector (2008) says that this is likely to lead to a sense of guilt. Thus, equity theory argues that regardless of whether we are the over-benefited or under-benefited partner, we are still likely to experience unease at any perceived unfairness. These dynamics are also evident in the workplace, where employees will feel their work situation is fair if they perceive that their colleagues are receiving equivalent rewards.

This proposition of human nature as inherently striving towards justice and fairness has been critiqued by other theorists who have argued that individuals often inherently strive towards maximising their own rewards at the expense of others (as suggested by social exchange theory). For example, Muzafer Sherif ’s pioneering work on group competition and conflict highlights the fundamentally competitive and non-complementary nature of human relationships, in a Western context at least. Nonetheless, equity considerations have considerable influence on whether we perceive our relationships with others to be both viable and pleasant.

In summary, equity theory presents a model of individual and group behaviour that may be understood as encompassing the following four basic propositions:

Proposition 1: Individuals will try to maximise their outcomes by evaluating and comparing rewards and costs.

Proposition 2: There is a social system of rewards for members of a group who are in equitable relationships. For example, previous human rights debates concerning the legalisation of same-sex marriage in South Africa highlighted some of the ways that the institution of marriage provides economic, political and socially sanctioned benefits enjoyed by individuals in a heterosexual relationship as compared to individuals in same-sex relationships. In this instance, the society itself provided social, economic and political rewards for members of a particular group to the detriment of others.

Proposition 3: When individuals find themselves in an inequitable relationship, they become distressed and frustrated (the more inequitable the relationship, the greater the distress and frustration).

Proposition 4: Individuals who discover they are in inequitable relationships will attempt to eliminate their distress by restoring equity (the greater the distress, the harder they will try to restore equity).

Evolutionary theory

According to evolutionary theory, possession of certain favourable characteristics (e.g. physical attractiveness) mean that it is more likely that an individual’s genes will be transmitted to the next generation (i.e. they will have babies!). Thus, the evolutionary approach underlies some important aspects of interpersonal attraction and sexual behaviour, namely long-term natural selection processes like genetic fitness, reproduction and survival, and perpetuation of genetic codes (DeLamater & Myers, 2007; Gilovich et al., 2006; Weiten, 2007). Evolutionary psychologists emphasise the role of genetic coding and its influence on social behaviour. More specifically, aspects like altruism, aggression, mate selection, sexual behaviour and especially the physical characteristics of humans and animals are believed to be influenced by the genes we inherit from our ancestors (DeLamater & Myers, 2007).

The study of mate selection, however, has amassed more attention from these psychologists than any of the other social behaviours. There is substantial literature on the evolutionary factors underlying a person’s choice of a mate and these findings are replicated across many different cultures (Fitness et al., 2003). This research has contributed to our understanding of the key aspects that both men and women focus on when selecting an appropriate partner. It is important to understand that these aspects are chosen for their evolutionary usefulness. First, both men and women value kindness, loyalty and emotional stability (Fitness et al., 2003). These are important characteristics in evolutionary terms because having children requires mutual support and dependability. However, there are some differences between men and women in terms of the mates they choose. For men, physical beauty and a youthful appearance appear to be crucial, as this indicates a fertile woman who can bear many healthy children. On the other hand, women seek partners with a stable social and financial status, who are able to provide resources for both themselves and their offspring (Buss, 1994 cited in DeLamater & Myers, 2007). It is evident from this perspective that attraction is strongly determined by the social capital or valued assets, like physical attractiveness or social status, which individuals possess. For example, a man who owns his own house and car is showing a potential mate that he has financial resources. Likewise, a woman who takes good care of herself and maintains a healthy body is showing that she brings health and vitality to the pair bond.

Sociocultural theory

In direct contrast with evolutionary theory, sociocultural theorists propose a theory of interpersonal attraction that argues that sexual attraction and behaviour are not biological but rather social and cultural in nature. The emphasis here is on the society and not the individuals in a relationship. In other words, sociocultural theorists are interested in understanding the social and cultural norms that influence how individuals come together and become part of a unit.

Socio-normative culture forms the backdrop of how we understand sexual and romantic behaviour. We may become attracted to someone because they share similar social and cultural values and beliefs as our cultural group. For example, a Xhosa woman may choose to enter marriage with a Xhosa man who has been received in his community as a man because he has successfully performed the ceremonial rites of passage through initiation. In this instance, she is influenced by her culture’s constructs of accepted notions of masculinity and the cultural practices that legitimate this construct. Sociocultural theorists therefore emphasise the ways that our social and cultural norms influence our partner choices and interactions (see Box 16.3).


•Social exchange theory provides a clear and simple approach to understanding attraction and social behaviour. This theory says that, in relationships, people exchange resources or services to gain higher rewards than costs. Each person has their own comparison level and if their expectations do not match what they are experiencing within the relationship, their comparison level for alternatives may lead them to seek a new relationship.

•Equity theory focuses on justice and fairness in human relationships. Individuals will try to maximise their outcomes by evaluating and comparing rewards and costs. People want to feel their efforts and rewards in the relationship are equal to their partner’s. We feel distress and unhappiness if we either over-benefit or under-benefit, and will try to correct this situation.

•Evolutionary theory focuses on physical aspects like genetic coding to explain interpersonal attraction and sexual behaviour. Mate selection research suggests that men seek physical beauty and a youthful appearance as this indicates a healthy, fertile woman, while women seek partners with a stable social and financial status, who are able to provide resources for both themselves and their offspring.

•Sociocultural theory argues that sexual attraction and behaviour are not biologically based but rather social and cultural in nature. It focuses on how social and cultural norms influence the formation of relationships.


Psychologists working within a framework of discourse analysis are interested in how social constructs place us into specific roles in society and how they influence our sense of agency to act within particular positions. These theorists have highlighted how some constructs such as gender, race and sexuality influence how we are positioned and experience ourselves as individuals who are defined as black, white, male, female, gay, lesbian, and so on. In this sense, social psychologists working within a discursive and social constructionist framework would be interested in how we are defined by others, for example in terms of our gender, race or sexuality, and how that influences our interpersonal relationships and attractions.

In a study focusing on interviews conducted with students in a post-apartheid context, Ratele (2002) demonstrates how constructs of racial difference as natural are used to define interpersonal intimate relationships as naturally forbidden and therefore undesirable. In a similar vein, Kiguwa and Langa (2008) in a study exploring cross-generational perceptions of same-sex partnerships, demonstrate how defining sexuality as rigid and natural is used to defend notions of homosexuality as unnatural and therefore pathological. These studies point to how social constructs (and how we define our identities as men and women, black and white, and so on) affect how individuals are perceived by others as well as how they may in turn perceive themselves.

Romantic love

Interpersonal attraction may in some instances never proceed beyond the feelings of intense emotional attraction and/or desire for someone associated with romantic love. At other times, it may develop further to include feelings of deep friendship and love for someone else. In this section we explore some of the characteristics of romantic love and the nature of intimate adult attachments.

Types of romantic love

Defining love remains a difficult and often confusing endeavour for most people. This is often because we are never really sure whether to include feelings of liking someone or being sexually attracted to them as part of being in love. Some social psychologists distinguish between two different types of love: passionate and companionate love. However, Sternberg (1986) proposed a triangular model of love (see Figure 16.6), including:


Figure 16.5 Romantic love includes feelings of intense emotional attraction and desire for someone else


Figure 16.6 Sternberg’s model of love

passion (intense feelings for another person, which may include sexual feelings)

intimacy (warmth, closeness and sharing with a partner in a relationship)

commitment (the intent to continue a relationship, in spite of the challenges that may arise) (Weiten, 2007).

From these basic dimensions, Sternberg said there are a number of types of love:

infatuation, which represents a complete absorption in another that involves tender sexual feelings, including the agony and ecstasy of intense emotion (Weiten, 2007)

companionate love, which is a blend of intimacy and commitment and involves a warm, trusting and tolerant form of affection for another individual whose life is closely intertwined with our own (Weiten, 2007)

consummate love, which represents the strongest and fullest type of love and is comprised of all three dimensions: passion, intimacy and commitment.

Attachment style combinations

Social psychologists generally agree that there are three main infant attachment styles that eventually come to characterise our close interpersonal relationships as adults. These attachment styles, which develop from the relationship between infants and their primary caregivers (see Chapters 3 and 4), determine the type of close, interpersonal relationships the person will seek out and engage in as an adult. Hence, the caregiving style that the infant experiences, as well as the type of attachment that the infant develops in response to the caregiving style, will influence the types of adult attachment styles he/she will demonstrate. These are presented in Table 16.1.


According to Nortjé (2008), most technological tools have a significant impact on how we construct our identities and relate to others. The social network phenomenon Facebook is one such domain where identities are formed, maintained, performed and negotiated by users. In her analyses of identity and friendships on Facebook, Nortje demonstrates how it is possible to maintain contact with some people whom we consider to be intimate and close friends and at the same time have friendships with people whom we do not consider to be close to us. The latter friendships are defined as superficial friends in comparison to real friends. In this sense, social networking sites may not necessarily increase intimacy between people but rather continue existing friendships as they exist in social reality.

Cyber friendships have initiated some considerable debate on the role of modern technology in overcoming interpersonal distance between people as well as enhancing intimacy (Bargh, McKenna & Fitzsimons, 2002; Joinson, 2001). Some studies have found that individuals engage in a process of impression management during face-to-face interactions as well as on the internet (Bargh et al., 2002). This therefore presents some doubt about the nature and depth of the friendships that are formed through social networks. It could be argued that long-term, face-to-face interactions eventually involve fewer conscious attempts at impression management compared to social network sites that do not have the influence of such direct contact; therefore, face-to-face interactions may nurture more depth and intimacy in our relationships.

Table 16.1 Attachment styles in adult relationships (adapted from Hazan & Shaver, 1987, cited in Weiten, 2007)

Parent’s caregiving style

Infant attachment style

Adult attachment style


Parent/caregiver who was generally warm and responsive, knowing when to support the infant and when to allow him/her to fend for him-/herself. The parent had a comfortable and easy-going relationship with the infant, with very little, if any, reservation about the relationship.


The infant—caregiver bond encouraged contact with the caregiver and the infant used this close bond as a base from which to explore his/her environment.


As adults, these individuals are comfortable getting close to others or letting others get close to them. There are no fears of abandonment or of being suffocated by a partner in a relationship.


Parent/caregiver who was usually distant, cold or rejecting. This type of parent was unresponsive to their infant’s needs and made the child feel as if he/she is not the caregiver’s first priority.


There was an insecure infant—caregiver bond, which was shown by minimal protest surrounding separation, and featured an avoidance of the caregiver.


These adults find it difficult to trust others and to allow themselves to be dependent on them. They feel uncomfortable getting too close to others or allowing others to get too close to them.


Parent/caregiver was inconsistent in his/her reactions towards the infant. He/she could be warm at times and cold at other times. Although this parent loves the infant, this is not clearly obvious to the infant.


A clearly insecure infant—caregiver bond emerged, characterised by intense separation protest coupled with a tendency for the child to resist contact with the caregiver after separation.


As adults, these individuals feel that others are reluctant to get as close to them as they would like. They are concerned by their partners’ feelings of love towards them and feel as though their partners do not love them. Their need for a complete merger between themselves and their partners seems to scare people away from them.


As argued earlier in the chapter, individuals have an intrinsic and basic desire to seek the company of others and to be affiliated with others. When this desire is not fulfilled, individuals experience what is generally known as loneliness. As we noted earlier in this chapter, however, some people have a lower need for affiliation and would not say that they feel lonely. Individuals who are lonely tend to feel isolated and that no one really knows them. They may feel rejected and that they have little in common with others (Baron et al., 2009). Most people feel lonely during various life transitions such as death, divorce or relocation of residence, and so on. However, some individuals experience what has been termed ’chronic loneliness’. Chronic loneliness has been linked with impaired physical health, poor mental health, higher levels of stress-related hormones and poor sleep patterns, and it can lead to early death (Baron et al., 2009; Weiten, 2007).

Baron et al. (2009) discuss a number of possible reasons for chronic loneliness:

Genetic disposition. Twin studies have demonstrated that identical twins are more similar in loneliness than fraternal twins.

Attachment style. People who have an avoidant style often struggle to establish intimacy with others.

Deficit in social skills. Children who do not have opportunities to interact may struggle to develop appropriate skills of relating to others leading to long-term loneliness.

Can technological advancement curb the spread of loneliness?

Theorists argue that, as more people begin to interact with others on the internet, face-to-face social disengagement develops (Bargh et al., 2002). Furthermore, excessive television viewing or use of gaming equipment may also contribute to social disengagement behaviour related to depression and loneliness (Weiten, 2007). Psychosocial theories of development (such as Erikson’s life span stage theory) have demonstrated the importance of peer interaction during particular phases of development. This process is critical for developing a sense of mutual trust and well-being towards oneself and others. Modern technological tools such as smartphones, the internet and gaming equipment may interfere with these processes of social play and interaction, thus leading to a sense of solitude and, in extreme cases, loneliness. At the same time, the internet and other communication technology may also facilitate and nurture intimate relationships for some socially anxious individuals, who have trouble with face-to-face interactions.


•Close adult attachments involve different types of love.

•Sternberg’s triangular model of love has three dimensions: passion, intimacy and commitment. From these basic dimensions, Sternberg identified a number of types of love: infatuation, romantic love, liking, companionate love, empty love, fatuous love and consummate love.

•Attachment theory argues that the three main infant attachment styles eventually come to characterise our close interpersonal relationships as adults:

”Parents with a warm and responsive parenting style are likely to have offspring with secure infant and adult attachments.

”Parents with a cold and rejecting parenting style are likely to have offspring with avoidant infant and adult attachments.

”Parents with an ambivalent or inconsistent parenting style are likely to have offspring with anxious/ambivalent infant and adult attachments.

•Loneliness may follow a life transition, but chronic loneliness has been associated with impaired physical and mental health. There is debate about the impact of technological advances on loneliness. They may either hinder or facilitate social engagement.


In this chapter we have looked at the different internal and external factors that influence the experience of interpersonal attraction. These influences are not mutually exclusive but may co-exist simultaneously in determining how one becomes attracted to a potential mate. Furthermore, we have explored four key theoretical approaches to understanding attraction between people. These demonstrate how the personal and social evaluations of rewards and costs underlie attraction as well as evolutionary theories about gender differences in choosing a mate. There also seem to be important considerations of fairness in relationships. Lastly, we saw how our sociocultural environment plays a significant role in influencing how we choose a mate. Over the long term, attraction between people tends to develop into close forms of intimate relationships that include the different dimensions of love and these may evolve into consummate love during different phases of the relationship. Exploring interpersonal attraction and close relationships between people is an important area of study for social psychologists interested in understanding the psychology of interpersonal relations. Through research, we have learned a great deal about how friendships form, how close relationships are nurtured and the nature of loneliness and its consequences.


Imageaffect: a person’s emotional state; may include both positive and negative feelings and moods

Imageattitude similarity effect: an attraction which is likely to develop when a person discovers that he/she has more in common with another person in terms of their shared attitudes, beliefs and preferences

Imageattractiveness stereotype: the idea that people who are physically attractive also have other positive and desirable characteristics

Imagecommitment: the intent to continue a relationship, in spite of the challenges that may arise

Imagecompanionate love: love characterised by a warm, trusting and tolerant form of affection for another individual whose life is closely intertwined with our own

Imagecomparison level: the comparison between people’s expectations concerning the level of rewards and costs they are likely to experience in a particular relationship and what they are actually experiencing in the relationship

Imagecomparison level for alternatives: people’s expectations regarding the extent of rewards and costs they would acquire in an alternative relationship

Imagecomplementarity: a theory which states that individuals who possess differing characteristics may still be attracted to each other (opposites attract) — this is counter to the common idea that people who are similar are attracted to each other

Imageconsummate love: love characterised by both passionate and companionate dimensions, and that represents the strongest and fullest type of love

Imagecosts: negative aspects of a relationship that we put up with (such as personal habits, or personality)

Imagehalo effect: the common belief that attractive people possess positive qualities beyond their physical appearance

Imageinfatuation: love characterised by a complete absorption in another that involves tender sexual feelings, including the agony and ecstasy of intense emotion

Imageinterpersonal attraction: the positive feelings and attitudes felt for another person

Imageintimacy: warmth, closeness and sharing with a partner in a relationship

Imageloneliness: characterised by the absence of close relationships which leads individuals to feel isolated and misunderstood by others

Imagenorm of homogamy: choosing partners who may be similar to oneself in some characteristic

Imageoutcome: direct comparison of rewards and costs (e.g. do the costs outweigh the rewards or vice versa?)

Imagepassion: intense feelings for another person, which may include sexual feelings

Imageproximity: the close physical space that individuals repeatedly find themselves in which allows them to meet others

Imagereciprocity effect: individuals like others who like and/or positively evaluate them

Imagerepeated exposure effect: higher frequency of contacts/meetings amplifies the attraction

Imagerewards: positive, gratifying aspects of a relationship (e.g. personal characteristics, behaviour and/or external resources such as status and money)


Multiple choice questions

1.The intrinsic need for ___________ is a primary motivator for wanting to make friends and belong to a group.





2.Which of the following types of love involves the three dimensions of passion, commitment and intimacy?





3.In Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, the three basic components of love are:

a)fatuous, romantic and companionate love

b)infatuation, liking and empty love

c)intimacy, passion and commitment

d)obsession, jealousy and adoration.

4.The notion that men and women choose their partners based on considerations of physical beauty and social status respectively is characteristic of:

a)equity theory

b)the matching hypothesis

c)evolutionary theory

d)sociocultural theory.

5.Secure attachment style in close relationships includes:

a)high levels of personal conflict

b)high levels of social anxiety and conflict

c)satisfaction and trust

d)high levels of despair and depression.

6.The idea that you will become friends with someone who attends the same classes as you and often sits next to you is characteristic of:

a)affiliation theory

b)the similarity hypothesis

c)the proximity hypothesis

d)none of the above is correct.

7.When you find yourself beginning to like someone because you see him/her almost every day, you are experiencing what is commonly referred to as:

a)the familiarity effect

b)the proximity effect

c)the reciprocity effect

d)the repeated exposure effect.

8.Research shows that physical attraction is:

a)equally important to women and men

b)not relevant to interpersonal attraction

c)does not affect how we interact with a potential mate

d)is a strong predictor of people’s preference for a potential mate.

9.According to social exchange theory, we sometimes make decisions about our potential rewards and costs in other relationships when choosing to end a current relationship. This is known as:

a)equity evaluation

b)comparison level

c)comparison level for alternatives


10.According to equity theory, when we perceive inequity in a relationship we:

a)immediately leave the relationship

b)cheat on our spouses

c)try to restore equity

d)ignore the inequity.

Short-answer questions

1.Discuss the three main attachment styles that characterise interpersonal relationships.

2.Describe internal and external determinants of attraction and use an example to demonstrate how important each determinant is in predicting attraction.

3.Explain and give examples of the triangular theory of love.

4.Discuss the saying ’opposites attract’ and make an argument for and against this idea.

5.Discuss the social and cultural differences in physical attraction that may impact on the development of a relationship.