The Science Behind How Attraction Works (and What to Do About It)
Attraction is something that almost everyone feels to some degree — an unspoken, nearly unexplainable feeling of desire for someone else, whether it’s romantic, sexual, or somewhere in the between.
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But what is attraction, exactly? Why and how does it happen? Are there different types? What does it mean about you, or the person or people you’re attracted to? Should you act on the feelings you’re experiencing, and if so, how?
AskMen spoke with a number of experts about attraction to get you answers to these questions.
What Does It Mean to Be Attracted to Someone?
One of the best things about attraction is that it resists easy categorization and definition.
It’s a feeling, and not a number or a shape or a letter grade. That indefinable quality gives rise to all kinds of art and expression — everything from sappy love poetry to gushing diary entries to unsolicited dick pics and fear-inducing catcalls — but it can also push people to try to put it in boxes it doesn’t necessarily fit in.
Think, for instance, of the habit guys have long had of categorizing women’s attractiveness by a score out of 10. It’s an attempt to simplify the mysterious, ineffable nature of attraction down to something simple and concrete, albeit in a way that ends up demeaning both the woman in question and the nature of attraction.
In short, maybe we should let attraction be what it is: complicated.
“Attraction is complex, as it’s not only about sexual allure,” says Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., host of the “@SexWithDrJess” podcast. “We are drawn to people for a variety of reasons — sex is not the only enticement. You might be attracted to different people at different times in very different ways. For example, you might find that you’re physically attracted, spiritually attracted, emotionally attracted, romantically attracted and/or mentally attracted to various folks.”
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In fact, it’s possible for our attractions to even reinforce or contradict each other.
“Sometimes you’ll experience multiple layers of attraction and other times, it might be a singular attraction; for example, you can dislike someone, but still find that you’re sexually attracted to them,” she continues. “If we’re talking about sexual attraction, we’re generally talking about being sexually drawn to a person (or people).”
Take note that how many people you’re attracted to can vary greatly. You might be attracted to hundreds or thousands or people, or just a handful; you might be only attracted to one person, or struggle to think of even one person you find attractive.
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All of the above are totally normal, partially due to attraction being something that’s unique to every person, and partially because it doesn’t need to define who we are or extend beyond our thoughts and feelings.
“Attraction is not love, commitment, or even lust (at least not at first),” says Kayla Lords, sexpert for JackandJillAdult.com. “So being attracted to more than one person is extremely common. Unfortunately, most of us have only heard the narrative that monogamy is the only way to experience relationships and, worse still, that attraction to other people is a serious offense.”
And then there’s attraction that doesn’t necessarily involve being attracted to a person. O’Reilly says that “some people also express sexual attraction to objects, scenarios, and feelings.”
Depending on what you’re into, that might sound either strange or familiar, but both are valid.
“There’s no real ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ when it comes to attraction,” says Lords. “We like what we like, and also there are plenty of things we don’t like. Everyone creates their own standards of what makes someone attractive to them, even if that ‘creation’ only occurs at a subconscious level.”
How Attraction Manifests Itself
In the Body
When in the presence of (or simply thinking about) someone you’re attracted to, it’s common to experience some physical effects.
“Many of us have felt the physical effects of heart racing, a fluttering feeling in our stomach, or sweaty palms when we meet someone we are attracted to,” says One Medical’s Michael Richardson, MD. “These sensations come about when specific hormones and neurotransmitters are released and impact not only our body, but our emotional attachment to the person we encounter.”
Other physical sensations or reactions you might experience include blushing, fidgeting, or even a degree of physical arousal, if the context lends itself to that in some way.
In the Brain
Of course, what’s going on physically is also in part a manifestation of things going on in your brain. Attraction manifests itself not just in your thoughts, but also is visible in how and where your brain is most active.
“Believe it or not, attraction comes from the same brain structures as fear,” says Anand Bhatt, M.S. of Certaire Medical. “We attribute attraction to the limbic system, which is a collection of brain structures that affect arousal, motivation, fear, and addiction.”
As a result, it’s completely normal “to feel a little tongue-tied or just not yourself when you meet someone you are attracted to,” says Richardson.
“You may notice your sex drive increases as your testosterone and estrogen levels surge, and the giddy and euphoric sensation you are feeling (and the reason you can’t fall asleep) are from the increased levels of dopamine and neuroepinephrine being released from this attraction.”
Attraction often manifests itself in our thoughts in bold, noticeable ways.
“Depending on the type and intensity of attraction, you might find that your thoughts immediately turn to sex,” says O’Reilly. “On the other hand, if the attraction is accompanied by feelings of intense emotion (e.g. love), you might find that the thought of that person overwhelms your thoughts. You may even have trouble focusing on other thoughts and tasks.”
If you’ve ever listened to a pop song where someone sings about falling in love or not being able to get someone off their mind, those kinds of reactions are indicative of the way some attractions can feel extremely powerful in their earliest stages.
If you’ve ever felt drawn to someone you’re attracted to, you’re familiar with the idea that attraction can feel like addiction. Naturally, that can have difficult implications in terms of how it impacts our actions.
“Advertisers rely heavily on this phenomenon,” says Bhatt of the attraction/addiction similarities. “You can’t even walk through a WalMart without being bombarded by images of half-naked people in giant ads near the underwear section. This is to trigger your limbic system,” almost like a drug would.
“In terms of actions, the response to attraction is highly varied,” adds O’Reilly. “This is because you have greater control over your actions. You can feel intense attraction and opt to act on it by approaching the source — or you can feel intense attraction and decide to move on.”
Some attractions are relatively harmless to pursue, say if you’re on a dating app and find yourself swiping right if you’re into them. But if you find yourself attracted to a friend’s partner, or to someone at work, acting on these attractions can have serious negative consequences.
What Kind of Person You Are, Based on Who You’re Attracted To
Does being attracted to a lot of people, very few people, or possibly no one at all, mean something about you? Is it weird to find yourself often attracted to the same kind of person over and over? Is it weird to be attracted to one person but not another person who, on the surface, seems just like them?
The answer to all of those? Essentially, no.
Though some people’s attractions are deeply important to who they are, our attractions don’t need to define us if we don’t want them to, particularly if it’s just something like being attracted to talented musicians or witty redheads.
“Having a type is extremely common, and yet many people (myself included) have found when we move away from a specific ‘type’ of person, we find more happiness and satisfaction,” says Lords. “Attraction based on outward appearance is real, but largely superficial,” she adds.
“The core of who a person is offers more meaningful connections than their outward appearance. Long-term, we love and commit to a person’s mind, personality, way of looking at the world, and who they are as a person. But when we discuss ‘types’ we often mean superficial things that are out of a person’s control — height, body shape, skin color, etc.”
Another reason attractions don’t necessarily say much about us is that they’re not set in stone.
“Initial attraction probably is out of our control — something about a person catches our attention, and we feel the spark of something for them,” notes Lords. “That doesn’t mean we can’t learn to be more open-minded, to read subtle cues about a person, or to look a little deeper before deciding we’re genuinely attracted to someone (or acting on that attraction).”
How You Should Deal With Being Attracted to Someone
You see someone you think is attractive and you might feel compelled to do something about it, to express the feeling somehow.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for even sincere expressions of attraction to come off as creepy or unpleasant if the person you’re informing doesn’t want to receive that kind of attention from you.
With that in mind, it’s a good idea to try to find a middle ground between over- and under-expressing your attractions. A good way to approach that is by not jumping to conclusions in your attraction — something that can be hard when you’re in the throes of it.
“Don’t assume that person will be attracted to you, and don’t assume that the feeling of attraction is love at first sight,” cautions Lords. “It could be lust, or it could be appreciation for someone’s outward appearance, but until you know them, it has little basis in who they are as a person. Also, don’t pursue someone you’re attracted to if they give any signals (a firm no, hesitation, discomfort, anything) that shows they’re not necessarily interested in or attracted to you.”
If you do want to act on your attraction, O’Reilly suggests gauging the other person’s interest first.
“Ask them if they’re interested,” she suggests. “You might ask them out on a date, you might flirt if they are open to it or you might (in the right context) pay attention to the body language. For example, if you’re in a club and they’re making eye contact and moving toward you, you might do the same.”
However, it can be trickier to gauge whether someone you’re attracted to is attracted to you too in a digital context.
“If you’re attracted to someone you see on Instagram, you cannot rely on their body language to gauge whether attraction is mutual, as their posts are not directed at you,” adds O’Reilly. “There is no mutual exchange.”
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That’s likely the reason for a lot of misguided social media interactions — you see someone, find yourself attracted to them, develop a desire for communication and connection, only to be completely rebuffed by someone who wasn’t asking for or expecting your approach.
On the other hand, a straightforward approach, when done right, is better than being sneaky about it.
“However you respond to attraction, be open and straightforward,” explains O’Reilly. “Don’t pretend that you want to meet to discuss business or hang out as platonic friends if you’re ultimately getting together with the hope that the sexual attraction is mutual.”
In the end, there’s nothing wrong with or strange about experiencing attraction. That said, it is possible to act on it in ways that can be embarrassing for you and/or painful for other people, and knowing how to avoid that will make your attraction experiences all the sweeter.
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