Why You Can't Fall In Love With Everyone You're Attracted To

Researcher Meiki Scheller unravels the complexities of romantic and physical attraction, and their bearing on partner preferences.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 18, 2023

A new study published in The Journal of Sex Research explores why people are drawn to certain partner qualities when it comes to sexual and romantic attraction. The researchers observed that men's preference for physical attractiveness remains even in cases of low sexual attraction, likely influenced by romantic attraction.

I recently spoke to Meiki Scheller (Ph.D), AFHEA, research associate at the department of psychology at Durham University, and the lead author of the study to understand the complexity of partner preferences and the role of individual values and relationship types when seeking meaningful connections. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What question did your research address?

In our research we were interested in understanding why some people are drawn to people with specific characteristics. For instance, there is a large body of research showing that men value physical attractiveness in women more than women do in men. At the same time women seem to prefer partners that are ambitious and that have a high social status and resources. At a certain time in our evolutionary history, these preferences were important and allowed us to adapt and become successful as a species.

Over the years, many of our societal values have shifted and we aim to pay more attention to other aspects such as reliability, respect and empathy (indeed, people find these characteristics very important, independently of their sex). However, despite the "aware" knowledge like "looks or status shouldn't matter as much", we still find these sex-specific preference differences to exist across different cultures and generations.

We were now interested in understanding what mechanisms might lead to these differences remaining so prevalent today. Here, we were focusing on a psycho-biological system that, quite automatically, determines who we feel drawn to and who not: our attraction system.

Can you explain in more detail the concept of sexual attraction and how it differs from romantic attraction in the context of your research?

From an experiential perspective, many of us will have experienced that attraction functions quite automatically. We often experience attraction to a specific person without being able to put a finger on the reason why. When we feel attracted to someone, our brain sends out signals to our body that increases our arousal: our heart rate speeds up, pupils dilate, palms get sweaty, and we get this fuzzy, warm feeling when being around them.

Notably, something we don't pay as much attention to, and hence something we don't really reflect upon often, is that the attraction we feel towards someone is often linked to the desire for specific interactions. For instance, we may experience attraction that makes us desire sexual contact with a person. At the same time, we may experience the desire to be around that person, exchange physically comforting behaviors such as cuddling and holding hands or build a deeper emotional connection.

While, in all cases, attraction tunes our body to seek emotional or physical contact with that specific person, sexual and romantic attraction are distinct concepts, and each of them plays an essential role for human relationships and sexual selection.

From a functional perspective, we may ask what the purpose of these different attraction forms have for us, and how they function. Our biological history might give us some clues here: Throughout our evolutionary history, not only our physiological, but also our attraction systems have evolved in order to help us feel more drawn to those people that offered a reproductive advantage.

For instance, in past human communities, where partnering was typically directly linked to reproduction, it used to be more beneficial for men to seek out youthful and physically attractive partners. Feeling physically and psychologically more attracted towards individuals with these features helped increase the chances of successful reproduction, and thereby favored these preference profiles.

Now sexual and romantic attraction may have served different functions:

  • Sexual attraction has likely been driving the selection of potential mates for reproduction.
  • Romantic attraction, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of emotional intimacy and bonding, influencing the formation of long-term relationships that provide support for offspring and partners.

If this was the case, we would expect that our sexual and romantic attraction would guide what we desire in a partner, and should allow us to explain why men prefer physically attractive women and women prefer men with higher status and resources.

While feelings of sexual and romantic attraction are complex and can vary from person to person, they are often, but not always, aligned in most people. That is, the majority of people experience sexual and romantic attraction to similar extents.

However, some people do not experience any sexual, or romantic, attraction at all, or only to reduced extents. For instance, people that find themselves within the A-spectrum (asexual, aromantic, and different degrees and variations thereof) experience reduced or no sexual or romantic attraction.

Against what many people believe however, the majority of asexuals still often experience romantic attraction towards others and a strong desire to engage in romantic relationships. Similarly, aromantic people often still desire sexual encounters with others, however, without the romantic behaviors. This is, in itself, interesting for many reasons, but also allows us to study the extent to which our sexual and romantic attraction affect our partner preferences.

We believe that these fairly automatic attraction systems, which have evolved throughout our evolutionary history, affect what kind of characteristics we are looking for in a partner. However, until now, this has not been directly tested.

What was the methodology of your study?

Our study was quantitative in nature. That means instead of conducting in-depth interviews with individual people, we used questionnaires and statistical modeling with a larger number of people. In total, we asked around 700 participants. 479 of them were included in the final analysis. This is because not all of the people that participated can be lumped together into one group. The problem is that most research to date has been looking at cis-individuals, that is, those whose gender also matches their sex assigned at birth.

Furthermore, research has largely been focussed on heterosexual individuals only, where the effects we are interested in (sex differences in specific preferences) are well documented. While there is some more recent research on non-heterosexual groups (e.g. lesbians, gays, bisexuals), there are some differences in the preferences that make combining data from all these groups tricky. That is, the effects we are looking for may be diluted as a result of opposing effects between cis-hetero and non-cis or non-hetero individuals.

However, we believe that it is important to include these groups in future research. To that end, recruitment needs to be specifically targeted to these groups in order to afford a sample size that is representative.

In our study, we were specifically looking for individuals that vary in their intensity with which they experience sexual attraction. To that end, we recruited people across the A-spectrum: those with high levels of sexual attraction (allosexuals), reduced levels of attraction (demi-, and gray-sexuals) and those who do not experience sexual attraction (asexuals). People also varied in the degree and orientation of romantic attraction.

All participants filled out a questionnaire that asked them to rate 33 characteristics, regarding how important they found these characteristics to be in a partner. These characteristics were grouped into four different feature groups: physical attractiveness, social status and financial prospects, intelligence and conscientiousness.

We then tested how well the degree of sexual attraction in our sample predicted the importance ratings of these characteristics (we also took the overall importance ratings into account, to reflect that asexuals may, on average, care less about all partner characteristics). We also tested how well romantic attraction in our sample affected importance ratings, as well as some other predictors, such as whether people think that their partner influences how others perceive them. The latter would allow us to test whether certain characteristics might bear an indirect advantage.

Your study found that sexual attraction accounts for certain sex differences in mate preferences, such as preferences for high social status, financial prospects, conscientiousness, and intelligence. What do you believe drives these preferences and how do they relate to sexual attraction?

Indeed, we found that sexual attraction can account for the finding that women rate social status, financial prospects and conscientiousness as more important than men, and that men rated intelligence as more important than women.

In other words, these sex differences, that we observe across the literature, were pretty much only present in people who experience sexual attraction, while asexual men and women rated them as equally important.

We propose that sexual attraction is a part of a psycho-biological attraction system (incorporating both biological and psychological responses) that has evolved to guide our mating efforts towards partners most likely to lead to successful reproduction. For women, characteristics like social status, financial prospects, ambition, and conscientiousness align with their long-term partnering and offspring-rearing goals. Therefore, their sexual attraction system is likely to be attuned to respond to these traits in potential partners. Our data supports this notion, as women who experience sexual attraction showed greater interest in partners possessing these traits.

The research also revealed that men's enhanced preference for physical attractiveness persists even in individuals with low sexual attraction. Could you elaborate on how the degree of romantic attraction explains this finding?

Yes, we were actually quite surprised to see that this difference in preferences between men and women still exists in individuals that experience low or no sexual attraction. This would suggest that physical attractiveness bears some advantages that are not only linked to sexual reproduction. There were two interesting aspects we observed.

Firstly, the enhanced preference in men for physically attractive partners seemed to be explained better by romantic attraction.

Secondly, even though sexual attraction did not directly predict the importance for physical attractiveness, it affected it indirectly. That is, those men who experienced high sexual attraction and who reported that their partner affects how others perceive them, placed more importance on physical attractiveness. Men that did not think that their partner affects how others perceive them, indicated less importance for this trait. How can we explain this in terms of its evolved function?

Evolutionarily, men have the highest reproductive advantage when sexually engaging with many partners – something that is also reflected in men having more frequent casual sexual encounters than women. Therefore, it may be possible that the desire for a physically attractive partner provides an indirect benefit: partnering with a physically attractive woman may enhance the perception of someone's own social status and mate value, thereby gaining higher chances of partnering with more women in the long term.

Furthermore, when choosing a long-term partner, men have the highest reproductive success with partners that are younger (youthful appearance), due to the cessation of fertility around menopause. It may be that this is one reason why romantic attraction, linked to the desire for a long-term, committed partnership, better explains the preferences for this characteristic.

However, we would need to test these ideas more directly in order to better understand the functional role that physical attractiveness preferences play for men and women.

Together, our findings highlight the importance of our attraction systems in shaping sex-specific mate preferences – not only directly, but in interaction with cultural and personal factors. By understanding how our preferences relate to our evolutionary history and reproductive goals, we gain valuable insights into the complexities of human mating behavior.

Given that contemporary sex differences in partner preferences appear to be influenced by both sexual and romantic attraction, what advice would you give to individuals who find themselves conflicted between physical attractiveness and other qualities, such as social status or intelligence, when seeking a potential partner for the long run?

This is an interesting question and I think it boils down to us trying to understand ourselves better. There are several limitations that make me refrain from giving characteristic-based "dating advice" based on evolved attraction systems.

Firstly, while the preferences that differ between men and women are useful indicators of sex-specific selection pressures of our evolutionary history, this does not mean that they are the most important characteristics to us when we choose a partner. In fact, mutual love and understanding, reliability and a meaningful connection are the most important characteristics that men and women equally desire in a partner.

Secondly, while we find that, on average, men and women value these preferences to different degrees, there is considerable individual variation. So while research on partner preferences suggests that men and women value different qualities in a partner, this does not have to be true for every single person.

In fact, so many other individual factors, like past experiences, compatibility, emotional connection and personal growth play into the preferences we exhibit at a moment in time. Indeed, some research showed that, while our ideal partner preferences may look one way, they may adjust to concrete potential partners.

For instance, if we meet someone that doesn't fit all the criteria we wish for in an ideal partner, giving the mutual connection time to develop may alter what we consider important in a partner. There is considerable flexibility in many evolved systems, including the attraction system: They can be modified by individual experiences. To that end, we should also remember that when we're looking for a partner, we are dealing with humans, not manufactured versions of our ideals.

Thirdly, what we are looking for in a partner depends on the type of relationship we are looking for: whether platonic, short-term, long-term, purely sexual or romantic, our partner preferences depend on the interactions we seek with another individual. Taking time for introspection allows us to better understand and prioritize certain preferences. It's also important to consider our role as contributors to this relationship.

Ultimately, what we consider an ‘ideal partner' can be quite subjective and can vary greatly between individuals. It's important to remember that while attraction can be a compelling factor that has evolved to provide high reproductive success, our individual aims and values do not need to align with this. Successful long-term relationships are built on a foundation of emotional connection, trust, shared values, and mutual respect. Understanding your own unique preferences, prioritizing them based on the relationship type you want to engage in, and being open to explore different qualities in potential partners, can offer useful steps in finding a meaningful and lasting connection with a potential partner in the long run.