The Science Of Physical Attraction

Written by Dave Rich

On April 14, 2014

Animal attraction is something that men and women have dedicated decades to unraveling. Whole branches of biology are dedicated to the study of how humans interact on a fundamental level to determine what makes a particular male attractive to a particular female and vice versa. The only thing they have managed to figure out conclusively is that it is a multi-layered problem and there is no single solution to it. As Barkow states,

“Many writers who have addressed this issue have concluded that female preferences are so diverse and idiosyncratic as to defy systematic explanation.”

There are as many varied things that affect if a man is attracted to a woman as if a woman is to a man, and it is only possible to cover the most important of them in a short discussion. Here, then, are the major factors that affect attraction across the male and female of the human species, backed by the scientific reasons for these preferences.

Facial Attractiveness

When it comes to the attractiveness of a face, the biological imperative is to locate an appearance that is not too genetically distant from the subject, while at the same time retains a sense of familiarity and interest. Across both sexes, there seems to be a marked preference for juvenile features in facial characteristics. As Perrett et al. notes in a study published in Nature, The International Weekly Journal of Science,

“These results indicate a selection pressure that limits sexual dimorphism and encourages neoteny in humans.”

Because of the preference for youthful features, these tend to be retained across the reproductive spectrum, and are passed on to progeny, resulting in a genetic predisposition for features of a juvenile nature. Another major point of determination in facial attractiveness is symmetry. Although you may not realize it, the minute your eyes scan a human face, it looks for symmetry and the more symmetrical the face, the more attractive it is. This is because a symmetrical face and body is viewed subconsciously by the human organism as an indicator of good genes. Although, logically, this isn’t very sound, it is a biological imperative and not a logical one that makes this determination.

Voice Pitch

It is common knowledge that males tend to have lower voice pitch and females tend to have higher ones. This comes from the evolutionary imperative that chooses for high voice pitch in females and lower voice pitch in males. In a study published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior in 2006, Puts, et al. found that,

“The results are consistent with the hypothesis that male intrasexual competition was a salient selection pressure on the voices of ancestral males and contributed to human voice sexual dimorphism.”

Although this study was done for males, the same is true for females except for the fact that the trait that is chosen for is high pitched vocal tones rather than low pitched tones. Indeed, the study went further to show that the sexual success of a male was enhanced by the depth of his voice and that voice pitch is directly related to the level of respect a male has for another male. In an unrelated study, it was found that female attractiveness was directly influenced by voice pitch as well as body symmetry, showing that this trait carries across the gender divide.

Body Shape

Desirable body shape is another major factor that an individual considers when determining the attractiveness of a potential mate. In the male, a subconscious decision is made by comparing a woman’s waist to hip ratio and drawing a conclusion based on it regarding her fertility, and her inherent attractiveness. As Devendra Singh finds in his study published in The Journal of Human Nature,

“The study concludes that WHR is a reliable and honest signal of a woman’s reproductive potential.”

Biologically and historically, it can be seen where such a thing would be a viable descriptor of a female’s reproductive capability. A woman’s ability to bear children was directly related to her attractiveness in the past. Because of this, her waist to hip ratio would be a reliable method of telling whether she would die in childbirth or would survive to give birth again. At a fundamental level, it is a very interesting archetype to explore, but as social roles have changed, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, you will find that women are far less attractive solely because of their baby-making potential.


One of the final, major effective tools of attraction is the pheromone. It has been seen in numerous clinical studies that pheromones in natural human body odor, usually combined with one or more other sexual attractiveness descriptors tend to drive attractiveness across the gender divide. Males tend to find women who smell a certain way far more attractive than others. Conversely, females tend to find certain males more attractive when on their menses than when not, whereas other males tend to be attractive regardless of the point of the menstrual cycle. Scent of pheromones by themselves are not very valid helpers in the determination of attractiveness, but combined with one or more of the previous descriptors, they can be quite effective in creating a viable mating strategy.

Human sexual attraction varies between the genders. Even though physical attractiveness is a major plus or minus for some individuals when it comes to choosing a mate (whether for life or temporarily), the final decision usually comes down to the application of social conduct and graces. Looking and smelling good will only get you so far. After the point of creating attractiveness, you have to keep them interested, usually with conversation. The ability to keep a woman interested with your conversation is an art that should never be overlooked. We are no longer at the evolutionary stage where simple attraction would be the reason why a female mates with a male. Because of the progression of society, there is now an increasing pressure on both sexes to be more than just a pretty face.

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