What Fuels Romantic Attraction?

Hormones might trump a handsome face or hefty wallet.

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As Washington's famed cherry blossoms give way to tulips and forsythia, spring's fertility gets me thinking about love. (French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said, "Love is a springtime plant that perfumes everything with its hope, even the ruins to which it clings.")

What is it, I wonder, that drives us to fall head over heels for that special someone? I decide to pose this question to Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, who analyzed the brain scans of people experiencing the insane rush of new love and wrote one my favorite books, Why We Love. (The brain scans showed that the caudate nucleus—the part of the brain associated with pleasure, arousal, and motivation to acquire rewards—gets activated when a person gazes at a photo of a sweetheart.)

Fisher answers my question with a question: "You can walk into a room with all good-looking people, where everyone has the same cultural and educational background, and yet you're only drawn to one person. Why is that? I'm beginning to think that maybe there are some biological things we should be looking at." In fact, Fisher's next book, a study of attraction due out next February, will share insights she gleaned from more than 100,000 matches made on the dating website chemistry.com, for which she serves as a scientific adviser. She posted an online survey there to try to classify people by types and see whether attraction could be predicted based on those types. (She found it can.) Working title of the book? "I don't have one yet," she says. Perhaps, I muse, Why We Feel That Connection.

The survey and book are based on Fisher's theory that four biological types attract or repel each other based on which hormone is dominant and drives them:

Explorer : Creative, curious, thrill-seeker type who is driven to get a surge in the "excitement" hormone dopamine.

Builder : Managerial type who is literal, fact oriented, and has a tight circle of close friends. Prefers to follow social norms; very traditional and guided by the "stay on an even keel" hormone, serotonin.

Negotiator : A people person with strong verbal skills, very intuitive and great at reading gestures and tone of voice. Very imaginative and can easily see the big picture. Compassionate and nurturing personality fueled by the "female" hormone, estrogen.

Director : Direct, decisive, and analytical personality fueled by the "guy" hormone, testosterone. Good with computers, all things mechanical, understands the architectural structure of a building or piece of music.

Unfortunately, Fisher isn't ready to reveal to me the specifics of, say, whether an explorer attracts or repels a builder. "My publisher will kill me if I give too much away," she confides—though I'm guessing that making vacation plans might be tricky for those two.

There's certainly no shortage of research on how we select our matches. Studies suggest that opposites don't usually attract, that most people feel chemistry with strangers from the same sort of family, religious, and economic backgrounds who have a similar amount of physical attractiveness and intelligence and who share core values. Researchers from Durham University in England found that women view men with masculine faces (square jaw, larger nose, smaller eyes) as good for hookups but bad for long-term partners as they're likely to be less faithful and worse parents compared with men with feminine facial features (fuller lips, wide eyes, thinner eyebrows). The same researchers reported last week that men and women reacting to physical appearance are attracted to complete opposites: The guys went for photos of females who had reported on an earlier survey being open to short-term sexual relationships (unbeknownst to the men), whereas the women were most drawn to guys who preferred long-term relationships. The sexes are more in tune when it comes to a sense of humor, according to Canadian researchers. Women want a man who makes them laugh—and men want a woman who laughs at their jokes.

Regardless of what triggers that spark, Fisher tells me there are certain truths about its power:

  • If we can't get the one we want, we may develop "frustration attraction" that causes us to want that person more.
    • Romantic love is paramount: 91 percent of women and 86 percent of men reported in a recent survey that it's not enough to love a person to choose marriage. It's necessary to be "in love." (Another poll found that 47 percent of folks said they would divorce after two years if they weren't still in love, but only 16 percent would if they already had a child from the marriage. So kids can trump romance.)
      • It's possible to still be "in love" after a decade or more of marriage. Fisher did a brain scan on a friend of hers who said he was still in love with his wife after 25 years and found increased activity in three areas of the brain associated with the early stages of love. "It's certainly possible but you've got to pick the right person and you have work to sustain it," she says. Besides doing things for each other and treating each other with respect, she says couples have to do novel things to drive up dopamine in the brain. Couples skydiving, perhaps?
      • You can take chemistry.com's free quiz to determine your own biological type—though you'll have to pay to be matched with other survey takers with whom you're most likely to have a mutual attraction.