Social psychology is the study of everyday life – the self, one’s relationships, social influence, and how people view and behave toward others. Its overarching themes center on the principles of situationism, meaning that situations have a powerful influence over behavior, subjectivism, meaning that everyone sees the world through a filtered perception, emergence, or the idea that phenomena are constructed rather than fundamental, and the fact that phenomena are multidimensional – they are the result of many factors. This 101 series examines various introductory topics in social psychology.
Social Psychology 101 is divided into the following chapters of content:
Social Psychology 101: Attraction, Love, & Relationships
Social Psychology 101: Attraction, Love, & Relationships
Social psychology is a fascinating field that explores the intricacies of human behavior and social interactions. One of the most intriguing areas of study within social psychology is the understanding of attraction, love, and relationships. This article will delve into the various factors that influence physical and psychological attraction and how these factors shape people’s desire to form relationships with others. The role of genetics, cultural norms, situational contexts, proximity, familiarity, similarity, and positive affect in shaping attraction will also be explored. Additionally, this article will examine the need for relationships within human beings, and how it is deeply ingrained in human evolution, biology, and social situations. Finally, ideal healthy relationships, the methods individuals utilize in decision-making about relationships, and the triangular theory of love will be described and examined. Understanding these concepts can provide valuable insights into how individuals form and maintain relationships with others and can help one navigate the often complex and challenging world of love and relationships.
Figure 1: Understanding the specifics of attraction, love, and relationships can aid one in navigating their own romantic endeavors (CNN Staff, 2022).
Physical and Psychological Attraction
Several factors can shape physical attraction, including genetics, cultural norms, and situational contexts. In general, the genetic elements of facial symmetry, youthfulness, averageness, and physique make one more attractive (Stangor et al., 2022). Several studies have demonstrated that people rate facial averageness as attractive, and while some faces may be more attractive than average faces, extreme departures from the average face shape and morphology are seen as unattractive (Gangestad & Scheyd, 2005). Averageness, as a concept in aesthetics, refers to the phenomenon whereby the perceived physical attractiveness of an individual's facial features is influenced by the averaging of similar facial features from individuals of the same gender and approximate age group (Gangestad & Scheyd, 2005). Most people also have preferences for the physique of their mates. Research indicates that in males, a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.8 to 0.9 and a waist-to-shoulder ratio of 0.6 is found most attractive (Dixson et al., 2003). In women, there is an overall preference for a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 (Furnham et al., 2002). Learning through cultural norms also influences what one perceives to be physically attractive (Stangor et al., 2022). For example, a person’s social groups and cultural mores may uphold certain beauty standards, displaying these at large through leading actors in movies and the styles of actors’ dress in popular television shows. Situational context is another factor that molds attraction as well. According to the motivations and goals that have been activated in one’s environment, these will highlight or inhibit the aspects they find to be sexually attractive. For instance, sociosexual theory describes short-term, noncommital, sexual relationships, and it posits that people will have different preferences depending on whether they are focused on short or long-term mating (Wiederman & Dubois, 1998). Contrast effects may also play a role in how attractive someone will find another person. For example, when a person is standing next to an extremely physically attractive person, they may appear to be less attractive (Irvin, 2007).
Psychological attraction is the desire to interact and affiliate with another person. It involves feelings of interest, desire, and attachment, and can be based on a wide range of factors, such as relationship primitives like proximity, familiarity, similarity, and positive affect. Proximity refers to the perception of shared experience. The physical nearness between two people can increase the likelihood of them forming an attraction, as being in close proximity to someone allows for increased opportunities for interaction and familiarity (Stangor et al., 2022). Familiarity refers to the degree to which a person has been encountered or experienced. Familiarity can increase attraction because it can create a sense of comfort and safety, as well as a feeling of predictability. The mere exposure effect also explains why familiarity leads to attraction, as it puts forward the idea that people tend to develop a preference for things simply because they are familiar with them. The more frequently a stimulus is encountered, the more likely a person is to have a positive attitude toward it (Zajonc, 1968). Similarity in people’s attitudes, sociability, and attractiveness can also lead them to be attracted to each other. For example, the matching hypothesis posits that people are more likely to form committed relationships with someone who is equally attractive as themselves (Jia et al., 2015). Similarity can increase attraction because it can create a sense of understanding and compatibility. Finally, people tend to be attracted to those who are able to elicit positive emotions in them. This is known as positive affect and can increase attraction because it can create a sense of positive energy and optimism (Stangor et al., 2022).
Figure 2: People have a preference for faces that reflect the average face, rather than extreme variations from the norm (Komori et al., 2009).
The Need for Relationships
Human beings are known as social animals because of their strong desire to interact and form relationships with other humans. Humans have evolved complex social structures and languages, giving them the ability to create communities and resource-sharing networks that support their survival as a species. Several factors drive people’s motivations to build relationships, namely, personal variables like identity and self-esteem and situational variables like mortality salience and social ostracism (Stangor et al., 2022).
An individual's need to form a coherent personal identity informs their need for relationships. Social identity theory describes how people tend to categorize themselves and others into groups based on shared characteristics such as race, gender, religion, and nationality when forming a sense of self and group identity. These group memberships provide individuals with a sense of belonging, validation, and social identity (Turner et al., 1979). The theory proposes that social identity motivates relationship building by emphasizing the importance of group membership for an individual's sense of self and self-esteem. It further proposes that people will favor their in-group over an out-group, thus encouraging individuals to form and maintain relationships with those who share the same group membership (Turner et al., 1979). The desire to increase self-esteem also motivates relationship building. The sociometer hypothesis frames self-esteem as an indicator of social importance, where self-esteem acts as a psychological monitor of how well one’s interpersonal and social relationships are functioning (Leary et al., 1995). The sociometer hypothesis suggests that people engage in behaviors that help to maintain or increase their social acceptance, such as prosocial behaviors and self-presentation, and avoid behaviors that may lead to social rejection, such as antisocial behaviors or social isolation (Leary et al., 1995). This enables them to maintain enhanced self-esteem.
Figure 3: Social identity leads one to identify with their group membership, like these soccer fans, and form relationships with those inside their group (Hutchins, 2014).
Mortality salience is the idea that when individuals acknowledge the fact that they will die one day, this changes their desires for relationships. Certain situations may elicit this phenomenon. Studies show that people respond to mortality salience by initiating new relationships and maintaining pre-existing ones by engaging in acts such as “increased commitment, forgiveness, intimacy striving, attraction, approach motivation, and adaptive jealousy.” It will also prevent the manifestation of detrimental attitudes and behaviors such as “decreased fear of intimacy and rejection sensitivity” (Plusnin et al., 2018). Studies have found that when exposed to mortality salience, “people seem to be strongly motivated to form close relationships even at the cost of ﬁnding a less-than-ideal partner” (Hirschberger et al., 2001). They also exhibit a greater desire for romantic intimacy and greater feelings of romantic commitment (Hirschberger et al., 2001). Moreover, self-esteem plays a role in reactions to mortality salience, which lie on an approach-avoidance continuum, “with those low in psychological resources opting for avoidance and those high in psychological resources preferring an approach strategy” (Hirschberger et al., 2001). In other words, individuals with low self-esteem tend to withdraw and avoid social interaction in response to reminders of their own mortality, while those with high self-esteem tend to seek out new social connections and opportunities for relationship building. Lastly, social ostracism also plays a significant role in shaping an individual's desire for relationships. When individuals experience rejection or exclusion by their peers, they may become angry and motivated to seek out new social connections and relationships. This behavior is thought to be driven by the fundamental human need for social belonging (Williams and Jarvis, 2006). This can lead to them seeking to restore strong relationships and affiliating with strangers in order to alleviate the negative effects of being excluded by their peers.
Relationships are a fundamental aspect of human life and play a crucial role in overall well-being and happiness. Understanding the factors that make strong, satisfying relationships is essential for building and maintaining healthy connections with others. Communal relationships describe bonds in which partners willingly provide benefits to fulfill their partner’s needs, simply because they want to (Clark & Mills, 1979). This is motivated by a desire to help and support the other person, rather than by a desire for reciprocation. Research on reciprocal self-disclosure has shown that engaging in increasingly intimate conversations involving self-disclosure can increase the strength of communal relationships (Laurenceau et al., 1998). Good, strong communal relationships also allow for self-expansion, as individuals have the space and psychological safety to explore new interests, build new skills, and facilitate new relationships (Stangor et al., 2022). Cross-cultural differences in close relationships have shown that individualistic cultures, such as the United States, tend to have higher levels of self-disclosure, social support, intimacy, and expressed love than collectivist cultures, such as China. In other words, people living in individualistic cultures seem to be more actively engaged in their relationships (Kito et al., 2017). This may be due to the fact that relational mobility, or the tendency for relationships to be more fragile and prone to change, is also higher in individualistic cultures. In order to maintain relationships then, individuals in these cultures may increase efforts to engage in relationship-retaining behaviors (Kito et al., 2017).
Figure 4: The experience of mortality salience often alters people's desires for relationships (Mortality Salience - IResearchNet, n.d.).
The Investment Model of relationships is a theoretical framework that explains how individuals evaluate the costs and benefits of a relationship and make decisions about staying or leaving it. According to the model, people consider the rewards they receive from the relationship, such as love, companionship, and social support, and weigh them against the costs, such as time, effort, and sacrifice. The model suggests that people consider alternatives to their current relationship, such as other potential partners or singlehood, before making a decision. Additionally, the model proposes that the previous investments made in a relationship, such as time, money, and emotional commitment, also play a role in the decision to stay or leave (Rusbult et al., 1998). This line of thinking, that one needs to stay in a relationship in order for their past investments to pay off, is known as the sunk cost fallacy. The importance of commitment in relationships is also highlighted in the model, as people who are more committed tend to perceive their partner more positively, are less aggressive toward them, less likely to imagine other partners, and less interested in other potential partners (Rusbult et al., 1998). The Investment Model offers a comprehensive perspective on how individuals evaluate the costs and benefits of a relationship, and how this evaluation might influence their commitment, satisfaction and the decision to stay or leave the relationship.
The Triangular Theory of Love
The triangular theory of love is a model that suggests that there are different types of love and that each is made up of different combinations of cognitive and affective variables. The theory proposes that love can be broken down into three components: passion, intimacy, and commitment (Sternberg, 1986). According to the theory, different types of love are characterized by different combinations of these components. The theory proposes seven different types of love: liking, characterized by intimacy alone; compassionate love, characterized by intimacy and commitment; empty love, characterized by commitment alone; fatuous love, characterized by passion and commitment; infatuation, characterized by passion alone; romantic love, characterized by intimacy and passion; and consummate love, characterized by intimacy, passion, and commitment. These different types of love are not mutually exclusive, and individuals can experience multiple types of love at the same time (Sternberg, 1986). This theory is a useful tool for understanding the complex dynamics of love and how different combinations of passion, intimacy, and commitment can influence one's experience of love.
Figure 5: The Triangular Theory of Love describes different expressions of love (Watson, n.d.).
Attraction, love, and relationships seem to exist everywhere. Social psychology offers insights into the complexities of human behavior and social interactions, specifically in these areas. Learning about love and relationships is important because it can help individuals understand their own behavior and motivations, as well as the behavior of others, in romantic and interpersonal contexts. This understanding can help people form healthier and more fulfilling relationships, whether they be romantic, platonic, or familial. Understanding the psychological and social factors that influence attraction and relationships can also help people make more informed decisions about whom to form relationships with, and how to maintain and improve those relationships. Additionally, a deeper understanding of relationships can also help individuals better navigate the complexities of social interactions and communication, leading to a more positive and harmonious life.
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Cover Image: Fearon, F. (2019). The important facts you need to know about Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss.’ GQ [Painting]. https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/culture/article/gustav-klimt-the-kiss-facts
Figure 1: Staff, C. N. N. (2022). 10 romantic paintings that stir feelings of love [Painting]. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.cnn.com/style/article/10-romantic-paintings/index.html
Figure 2: Komori, M., Kawamura, S., & Ishihara, S. (2009). Averageness or symmetry: Which is more important for facial attractiveness? [Photograph].
Figure 3: Hutchins, M. (2014). How Argentinians made “Bad Moon Rising” their soccer anthem [Photograph]. https://theworld.org/stories/2014-07-10/how-argentinians-made-bad-moon-rising-their-soccer-anthem
Figure 4: Mortality Salience—IResearchNet. (n.d.). [Painting]. http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/self/mortality-salience/
Figure 5: Watson, S. (n.d.). Explaining Sternberg‘s Triangular Theory of Love [Illustration]. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.elitesingles.ca/en/mag/find-match/consummate-love