Meet Christian and David
Christian, a second-year undergraduate, expressed a desire to expand his social network on campus. After contemplating different options, he decided to join an intramural volleyball team. His decision was based on the abundance of teams at the university and the opportunity to meet new people, both of which aligned with his social pursuits. Christian’s commitment to the volleyball team involved regular meetings and twice-weekly practices. During these sessions, he gradually got to know his fellow team members, including David, who quickly became a close friend. The two discovered that they shared many common interests, hobbies, and views on different matters. As they spent more time together, Christian became aware of a growing social attraction towards David, as he enjoyed his company and found him to be a fun person to be around. They formed a tight bond as their friendship blossomed, which was further strengthened by their shared experiences on the volleyball team. Christian met his goal of expanding his social circle to include David—and ultimately other friends from the team—which enhanced his social life on campus.
Understanding Attraction in Interpersonal Relationships
Interpersonal attraction often characterizes the initial stage of establishing a relationship. Attraction’s role in communication is to help propel us to launch and develop various kinds of relationships ranging from amicable friendships to intimate romantic partnerships. Interpersonal attraction can be defined as a “liking for” or interest in another individual, or as a mutual interest and liking that two or more individuals share. The degree of interpersonal attraction that individuals experience often determines the frequency and intensity of their communication and the extent of influence they exert on each other (McCroskey & McCain, 1974). Consequently, understanding interpersonal attraction is necessary for comprehending how we form and maintain relationships with others.
3.1 Interpersonal Attraction is Multidimensional
There is a widespread misconception that interpersonal attraction is primarily influenced by the presence of physical features that one finds appealing in another person. However, it is imperative to recognize that interpersonal attraction is not a one-dimensional construct. Instead, according to James McCroskey and Thomas McCain (1974), interpersonal attraction is multidimensional and is comprised of three dimensions: physical attraction, social attraction, and task attraction. These dimensions serve as a means to gain deeper insight into why individuals become attracted to one another and may ultimately establish interpersonal relationships.
Physical Attraction: Physical attraction refers to the appeal that an individual’s physical appearance holds for others. This can encompass a range of factors, including facial features, hair, physique, height, and even tattoos. A person’s distinctive physical characteristics may pique the interest of others, leading to the initiation of communication and the formation of interpersonal relationships. The allure of a physically attractive individual may extend beyond the romantic realm, impacting the formation of friendships as well.
For example, the level of physical attractiveness an individual is perceived to convey can significantly impact the social rewards they receive, with more attractive individuals generally being more adept interpersonally due to the increased responses they receive from their peers (Barocas & Karoly, 1972). There is a pervasive assumption that physically attractive individuals possess positive internal qualities, such as being friendly and extroverted; this phenomenon—which has been found to occur across cultures—is also referred to as the “halo effect” in which physically attractive people are assumed to have more positive qualities (Batres & Shiramizu, 2022). This phenomenon is likely due, in part, to the societal emphasis placed on physical attractiveness.
Social Attraction: Social attraction pertains to an individual’s positive social presence. This dimension is often characterized by an individual’s personality, which can elicit feelings of friendliness and enjoyment in others. Individuals who are socially attractive may be kind, patient, calming, or any number of characteristics that are likely to be perceived as socially “warm.” Shared interests or experiences can also enhance one’s desire to engage with another individual.
Humor is a powerful tool for building social attraction. According to Wanzer et al. (1996), people who are perceived as funny or having a good sense of humor report that they experience fewer feelings of loneliness, while people who are less humorous and more apt to behave in socially aggressive ways may have a more difficult time reaping the potential relational benefits social attraction.
Task Attraction: Task attraction describes an individual’s inclination to work with someone based on their demonstrated competence and dependability. This dimension is often depicted by an individual’s ability to fulfill specific tasks or responsibilities, which can produce admiration and respect in others. Task attraction is commonly observed in work settings, where individuals are often required to collaborate with coworkers to achieve shared objectives.
Importantly, task attraction can also manifest in other types of interpersonal relationships, where individuals are drawn to others based on their demonstrated abilities. For example, task attraction may be situational (e.g., a group project for a class) or long-term (e.g., a good fit for a job), and may change positively or negatively over time. Further, someone may seemingly have a high task attraction for others but not follow through with what they are able to do depending if it is something they want to do.
Task attraction can be very important when working in pairs or groups. Can you recall a time where you selected a partner or group members based on a particular skill? What skills do you bring to the table in collaborations?
How do you think the three dimensions of interpersonal attraction (physical attraction, social attraction, and task attraction) interact with each other?
Do you think that one dimension is more important than the others in determining the formation and maintenance of interpersonal relationships?
3.2 Factors of Interpersonal Attraction
In addition to McCroskey & McCain’s (1974) dimensions of interpersonal attraction, scholars like Newcomb (1956) have identified other factors that also contribute to what might make someone an attractive relational partner. These factors include propinquity, the physical proximity of (and consequential availability) of individuals to one another; similarity, the shared characteristics between individuals; and reciprocity, the mutual exchange of positive feelings and behaviors. These factors can promote a desire in individuals to establish interpersonal relationships based on attraction, leading to the formation of meaningful connections with others.
Propinquity: The propinquity effect is another crucial factor that influences interpersonal attraction. This phenomenon describes how individuals become more attracted to one another as they spend more time in close proximity to each other. Frequent interactions between relational partners can foster a sense of familiarity and comfort. For instance, two people sitting next to each other in a classroom or working close to one another are more likely to develop interpersonal relationships due to their repeated exposure to one another. Consequently, propinquity plays a significant role in shaping the nature and extent of individuals’ interpersonal relationships.
Similarity: Individuals are often drawn to others who share similar interests, beliefs, values, and backgrounds. Similarities may also include physical appearance, social behaviors, and cultural demographics. According to Morry (2005), individuals often find ease in connecting with those who share similar experiences and perspectives, leading to a sense of compatibility and comfort in their interactions. Consequently, similarity plays a significant role in facilitating interpersonal attraction and forming relationships with others.
Reciprocity: Individuals feel drawn to others who demonstrate a positive interest in them. People tend to be attracted to those who reciprocate their positive feelings, as this establishes a sense of mutual support and connection. Reciprocity plays a significant role in forming interpersonal relationships, as individuals are more likely to form connections with others who demonstrate a positive interest in them than those who do not.
How have the above factors played a role in the meaningful relationships with others in your life?
How have these factors influenced the nature and quality of your relationships over time?
3.3 Factors of Interpersonal Attraction
There are several theories that offer valuable insights into the dynamics of attraction in communication. Understanding the applicability of these theories in communication can assist in building and maintaining positive interpersonal relationships across various settings, including personal, social, and professional contexts.
Balance Theory: Fritz Heider’s (1958) Balance Theory posits that a state of balance must exist in order for individuals in an interpersonal relationship to maintain psychological harmony. Specifically, this theory asserts that if relational partners share similar beliefs or attitudes about something, then there is a likelihood of little to no tension within the relationship. Conversely, the feeling of imbalance is often linked to discomfort, which can stem from dissimilarity. Therefore, Balance Theory offers yet another parallel to the aforementioned similarity factor in interpersonal attraction.
Thinking about your own relationships, how has balance impacted feelings of support or belonging?
Social Exchange Theory: Developed by George Homans (1958), Social Exchange Theory explains that individuals make decisions about their interpersonal relationships based on estimates of the costs and rewards that they will receive by maintaining or leaving a relationship. Individuals weigh the negative costs of social interaction against the positive outcomes, or rewards, of said social interaction (e.g., staying in a relationship with someone who makes you laugh may increase the positivity you experience, while leaving someone who makes you feel sad or unsafe may also increase the positivity you perceive). Costs and rewards align with what individuals seek from their relationships.
3.4 Forming Relationships through Interpersonal Attraction
The story of Christian and David introduced at the beginning of the chapter illustrates the multidimensional nature of interpersonal attraction, particularly in the context of forming friendships. Christian’s decision to join the intramural volleyball team demonstrates the role of propinquity, or physical proximity, in forming social relationships. As he engaged in practices with his teammates, he had the opportunity to develop a social attraction toward David. The similarity between Christian and David in terms of interests, hobbies, and values played a significant role in their attraction toward each other. As Christian and David spent more time together, their bond grew stronger, forming a close friendship. Their shared experiences on the volleyball team also fostered task attraction as they worked together to achieve a common goal, which, in turn, strengthened their friendship and deepened their interpersonal connection. Overall, Christian and David’s story highlights the different dimensions of interpersonal attraction and the factors that drive it.
In conclusion, delving into the multidimensional nature of interpersonal attraction and how it relates to communication is an important step toward building a better understanding of why individuals become attracted to each other. In the next chapter, we will discuss the relational stages including and following the initial onset of interpersonal attraction.
Do you think that understanding the multidimensional nature of interpersonal attraction can help you cultivate deeper and more meaningful relationships with others?
Can you think of any examples from popular culture or media that demonstrate the different dimensions and factors of interpersonal attraction?
The Chapter 3 Mixtape
The Smiths – “This Charming Man”
Kate Bush – “Running Up That Hill”
Pet Shop Boys – “West End Girls”
Def Leppard – “Photograph”
Pixies – “Where Is My Mind?”
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Batres, C., & Shiramizu, V. (2022). Examining the “attractiveness halo effect” across cultures. Current Psychology, 1-5. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-022-03575-0
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations (1st ed.). Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203781159
Homans, G. C. (1958). Social behavior as exchange. American Journal of Sociology, 63(6), 597-606. https://doi.org/10.1086/222355
McCroskey, J. C., & McCain, T. A. (1974). The measurement of interpersonal attraction. Speech Monographs, 41(3), 261-266. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637757409375845
Morry, M. M. (2005). Relationship satisfaction as a predictor of similarity ratings: A test of the attraction-similarity hypothesis. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22(4), 561-584. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407505054524
Newcomb, T. M. (1956). The prediction of interpersonal attraction. American Psychologist, 11(11), 575–586. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0046141
Wanzer, M. B., Booth‐Butterfield, M., & Booth‐Butterfield, S. (1996). Are funny people popular? An examination of humor orientation, loneliness, and social attraction. Communication Quarterly, 44(1), 42-52. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463379609369999