The Science Of Attraction
The Debrief: The science - and biology - behind what makes us attractive to other people is just starting to be properly understood. And it can't be found in a Tinder algorithm.
Illustration by Amy Victoria Marsh
We live in strange, chaotic times. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that we all turn to the Internet for information/reassurance/distraction. The internet gives us the sense that everything is accounted for. Go a question? Google knows the answer. Don’t know what to eat tonight? Open up Deliveroo. Curious about what’s going on, on the other side of the world, in the middle of the night? The answer is two clicks away. Lonely? Swipe through Tinder/Happn/Bumble and your needs will be fulfilled.
However, unbelievable might seem, there are still some things we don’t know. There remain some aspects of human existence that we don’t have figured out, taxonomised and logged in cyberspace. Perhaps the most important and enigmatic of these is why fall in love with who we fall in love with and how the life-force which drives us all - desire and attraction - actually works.
You can scroll through Tinder until the cows come home, filling every spare waking moment with dates and you may still find yourself without a mate. They might tick all the boxes that we’re told decide who we will and won’t be compatible with: Do they like the same books/music/films as me? Do they work in a similar industry? Are they really good at texting? Do they wear the right clothes? Are they also a vegan/vociferous carnivore? And yet, you do not desire them. Call it ‘a spark’, call it ‘that thing’ – there is something that nobody has quite been able to pin down, let alone create an algorithm for, which determines who we are and are not attracted to. If we understood it, somebody would have bottled attractiveness by now and sold it back to us. Think something like the algorithm invented by the dating guru in the most recent Bridget Jones film.
Science is starting to understand the laws of attraction, but it by no means holds definitive answers. Daniel Davis, the author of The Compatibility Gene, explains that ‘the fundamental biology seems to suggest that the way we pick partners is very complicated and it’s quite a difficult thing to study.’
In recent years’ scientists and biologists have been looking into something called the Major Histocompatibility Complex. In layman’s’ terms this is a set of encoded genes and, the theory goes, that we’re attracted to people who have different immune systems to us so that our children will be healthy.
The way this manifests is that the scent of another person determines whether or not you are attracted to them. Daniel says, ‘There’s some evidence, which is on the cutting edge of science, that suggests that the immune system genes we inherit play some role in attraction and this is certainly an example of what’s lost when you’re using an app. It’s one aspect of the way we communicate with each other that’s necessarily lost when we use an app.’
To give you a sense of just how complex this field of study is, Daniel explains: ‘we each have the same set of genes, the human genome which consists of 25 thousand genes. By and large we have identical genes but about 0.1% of our genetic inheritance is different between individual people - so you’ll have a very small fraction of your genes different to me and they’ll be, what might be the difference that we have in genes people might think are to do with hair colour, eye colour, skin colour. But, the genes that vary the most between people have nothing to do with how we physically look but they work in our immune system.’ It’s these genes that Daniel refers to as ‘compatibility genes’; there’s no hierarchy of these genes just great diversity. For instance, it might take me three days to recover from a bout of flu but it might take you five but if we were talking about a different illness your recovery time might be faster.
He cites which was conducted by a Swiss biological researcher called Claus Wedekind that is often used to explain this phenomenon. The study is often known as the ‘sweaty T-shirt study’ and you’ll find it haphazardly replicated at an East London dating event every other week. ‘He had guys wear plain cotton t-shirts for two days and then asked women to smell these t-shirts’ Daniel explains ‘ranking them to how sexually attractive they thought the smell was.’ After this Wedekind ‘compared the result to how attractive the smell was versus the versions of these compatibility teams [of genes] that the men and women had. It turned out that the women preferred the smell of t-shirts worn by men who had different versions of these genes to themselves.’ This 1995 study has since been used as proof that a major histocompatibility complex preference exists in humans.
However, it is very controversial, Daniel points out. ‘if you interviewed different scientific societies you could get every opinion under the sun from people ranging from ‘this is definitely a fundamental aspect of human biology’ to ‘this is absolutely bonkers’. Why? ‘because this is such a difficult thing to study’. I ask Daniel whether there is, to his knowledge, anything definitive when it comes to the science of attraction? In short, the answer is no. ‘Even on a basic human level shared experienced count for a lot in relationships – with both friends and partners. I don’t know if there’s hard science on how and why we find people physically attractive. Even how we perceive physical traits is badly understood because the science is flaky by virtue of it being difficult to study’. What’s certain is that when it comes to attraction and desire there are factors at play which no dating app can replicate because we don’t understand them ourselves yet.
In further search of answers, I spoke with Dr Channa Jayasena, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Reproductive Endocrinology and Imperial College London. He explained that hormones ‘orchestrate’ the human reproductive system which interacts with our sexual behaviour along with other psychological factors. However, when it comes to how the hormones floating around in our reproductive systems – oestrogen, testosterone, oxytocin and, the more recently discovered kisspeptin – he says ‘we still know very little about this. It is likely that hormones in the brain influence our mood and reproductive behaviour subconsciously, but our conscious thoughts are probably the dominant factor in guiding our love lives.’ Probably, not definitely? ‘Yes, probably. We don’t know for sure.’
The Ancient Greeks called it Eros (the god of sexual attraction) – an immortal and inchoate, but nonetheless potent, force which propels us forwards and provokes us to act. Like his Roman counterpart, Cupid, the ruler of desire, Eros operates somewhere between lust, longing and love. When Eros rules over you, your life, paradoxically, becomes disordered and excruciatingly focused. The magnetic pull of the person you attracted to governs your every decision, down to which route you take home. You may find yourself unable to think of anything but them. You might, too, experience physical symptoms ranging from butterflies to waves of nausea.
The object of your desire is a vanishing point on the horizon of your existence and all roads must lead to them. You may even abandon your most cynical predispositions and become, once again, naively hopeful.
If sex and death are the universal pillars of all human existence then finding yourself in the throes of Eros is a reminder that nobody is immune to desire, love-proofed or impervious to attraction. Eros may lie dormant in your life, but it is never truly extinct. The forms in which it manifests itself in every individual, however, are many and manifold.
It’s here that dating apps fall short. They can present us with images of people we may, at first glance, find aesthetically attractive but they cannot simulate the sheer sensuality or blindsiding nature of being drawn to another human being you’ve never met before. Language itself falls short in describing these feelings which, I imagine, is why the Greeks developed Cupid and his bow and arrow as a neat metaphor for explaining the inexplicable.
Attraction and desire, love and lust – there is, as yet, (perhaps thankfully) no app for that.
Like this? You might also be interested in:
Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating