Interpersonal Attraction Theory Explained


Why are you attracted to some people, but not others?

The interpersonal attraction theory looks at how people are attracted to one another. This attraction may lead to a basic friendship, a platonic relationship, or a long-term romantic and intimate relationship. Instead of looking at the elements of physical attractiveness, this theory looks at the reasons why people like, don’t like, or hate others.

The bottom line is this: we are quick to judge others. Our first impressions of a person will often lead us toward a like or dislike of that person. The Interpersonal Attraction Judgment Scale, developed by Donn Byrne, takes this measurement into account.

The Questions We Unconsciously Ask Ourselves

When we run into a person for the first time, there are a series of perceptions and questions that everyone asks themselves. Based on the results of this evaluation, we decide to either pursue a deeper relationship with that person or we choose to cross the street and forget about that person until the end of eternity.

In the interpersonal attraction theory, the first stage of evaluation is a social attraction. There are three points to this evaluation process.

  • Could this person be a friend or an acquaintance?
  • Is it difficult to talk with this person?
  • Would this person fit within my current social structures?

Then a physical evaluation takes over. We look at the person and wonder if they are pretty or handsome. If that’s a “yes,” then we evaluate their overall attractiveness from a romantic standpoint. If that’s also a “yes,” then we self-evaluate our physical respond to that person. Is an intimate relationship desired? Or is the person “hot,” but not your “type?”

After this evaluation is complete, the interpersonal attraction theory suggests that we make assumptions about this person’s personality from our observations of them. We might wonder if they are irresponsible with tasks. We evaluate our confidence in that person to keep a promise or complete a job. We debate about their dependability.

Then each key point is scored based on an internal system that we have developed. If the person scores high enough, then we pursue a further relationship in some way. If the person doesn’t score high enough, then we pretend that we don’t know the person and hope that they’ll go away quietly.

Do Opposites Attract? Do People with Similar Tastes Group Together?

Within the interpersonal attraction theory, there are concepts of similarity and complementarity that are addressed within the personal evaluation system. Although everyone wants to group together with people who are “friendly,” the importance of having similarities or having opposites attract often depends on where the evaluator happens to be in their life at that moment.

When evaluating people for a long-term relationship, many look at how partners are different rather than attempting to find someone who is exactly the same. More satisfaction takes place when people are complement one another because the relationship benefits from both perspectives. For short-term relationships, platonic friendships, and similar encounters, similarity might be the point of emphasis instead.

Opposites do attract one another if both people evaluate each other and come up with a high score of desire. People with similar tastes group together when an evaluation score shows that a relationship would be potentially beneficial.

The reverse is also true. A person may avoid someone who is an opposite of them because their evaluation found more negatives than positives. A person might avoid others with similar interests for the same reason.

In general terms, however, the interpersonal attraction theory does identify one specific trend. People tend to score those who are complementary higher than those who are dissimilar because it allows them to maintain their own preferred style of behavior. By having people around that interact in a similar way to our own personal behavior, it validates the choices we’ve made, providing a feeling of security.

In a study of 184 heterosexual students, Melissa Burkley and Jessica Parker told participants that a computer would match them with an ideal partner. Each participant was provided with a profile that matched their exact preferences. The same photograph for the ideal woman or man was used for each participant.

Burkley and Parker then told half of the participants that their ideal candidate was single and the other half that the candidate was already attached to someone else. Men didn’t care whether the woman was single or attached. As for the women in the study, 59% were interested in their ideal partner if he was single, but 90% were interested when they were told he was attached to someone else.

What makes someone seem more attractive in an interpersonal way when they have an existing relationship? The fact that they have an existing relationship. When friendships form or a marriage happens, it is evidence to others that the individual involved has passed the evaluation process already. If someone identifies closely with the individuals involved in the relationship, they sense a compatibility that makes them feel like a relationship is not only possible, but beneficial.

Why Do Relationships Stop?

The interpersonal attraction theory isn’t a one-and-done evaluation. It is something that happens in every relationship, every day. We don’t just evaluate strangers. We also evaluate every person we allow within our various circles and boundaries. In many relationships, the evaluation process offers consistent results over time.

There are times, however, when those results can change. If the change is negative, frequent, and excessive, it can cause a person to decide that a relationship needs to stop.

A relationship is always a risk-reward determination. If a friend is consistently abusive, mean, and disparaging, then the value of the friendship is less than the value of not having the friendship. The same is true for married couples, people in an intimate relationship, or a stranger on the street.

We even use this type of interpersonal attraction evaluation to determine who, if anyone, we might help when asked. That’s why some people who are homeless can bring in plenty of cash while others who panhandle might not get anything. Every relationship, no matter how brief, must provide a benefit of some type.

When that benefit is present, human bonding can occur. If it is not present, then there is no emotional connection, which means there is no desire to pursue any type of relationship.

Physical attraction will always play a role in relationships, especially intimate ones, but it isn’t the only component of evaluation that every person uses to establish social circles. The interpersonal attraction theory suggests that we all use complex criteria to determine the “fitness” of every person, recently met or known for decades, to be in a relationship. That is why you can be attracted to one person, not another, and lose that attraction over time.