The Psychology of Attraction & Flirting

By Dr. Justin Dating Advice Two people flirt with physical touch of the feet creating intimacy

Why are we attracted to certain people, but not to others? What determines who’s hot and who’s not in our own eyes?

In this article, I will help you to better understand the science of physical attraction. We will explore what research can teach us about the psychology of love and romantic attraction, as well as how you can use this information to your advantage in order to boost your flirting game when courting a potential partner.

Sexual attraction is a function of biological, psychological, and situational factors. Below, we will explore each of these in turn.



Physical Attraction and Biology

One biological factor that plays an important role in physical attractiveness is our level of physiological arousal when meeting someone new for the first time. Research has consistently found that when we’re physiologically aroused at the time of meeting someone new, the more likely it is that we will find them to be attractive.

In one of the first studies to demonstrate this, researchers had an attractive woman approach random men in one of two spots and ask them to take part in a brief survey. Some of the men were approached on a very high and shaky suspension bridge—a place where people are likely to be feeling a bit aroused from danger, fear, and/or excitement. Other men were approached on a stable bridge close to the ground—a place more unlikely to inspire those same feelings of arousal.

Upon completion of the survey, the woman gave participants her phone number and told them to call if they had any questions about the study. It turned out that guys were much more likely to call when they met the woman on the shaky bridge, compared to when they met her elsewhere.

So why is that? What scientists think is the result is that people may be mistakenly attributing their arousal to the other person instead of to the situation. Alternatively, it could be due to something called excitation transfer, in which high arousal from one situation amplifies arousal in other situations.

This finding has been demonstrated many times in a wide range of situations, and it has been observed in men and women alike. For example, people also rate strangers as more attractive after a workout compared to when they’ve been at a standstill. We see similar results when comparing people who have just ridden a roller coaster to those who have been standing in line for a ride.

The takeaway: you can use this knowledge to your advantage when it comes to planning dates. For example, rather than a typical dinner and quiet movie night, you might consider doing something more active and exciting, such as going biking or rock climbing. Or if you really want to watch a movie, maybe pick something with action or thrills. Any way you look at it, if you and your date are highly aroused by the situation, you might find that you’re more attracted to each other in the end.


psychology of attraction


The Psychology of Flirting & Attraction

Several psychological factors play a role in attraction. One is perceived similarity: the more similar we see another person as being to us, the more likely we are to find them attractive. This makes sense because similarity is comforting—we’re familiar with it, we understand it—and that tends to make us happy. Similarity can also be validating. Most people want to believe their opinions and views are correct, so finding someone who thinks the same way as we do can also bolster confidence in ourselves.

In addition to similarity, your mood state can play a powerful role in attraction. Positive moods-even if they have nothing to do with the other person tend to facilitate mutual attraction, whereas negative moods tend to decrease initial attraction. For example, if you happened to receive some good news at work just before meeting someone new, chances are that you’ll like them even more.

But it’s not just the mood you have going in that’s important. It also depends on how the other person makes you feel. If they happen to do something unexpectedly nice or compliment you, this can similarly have positive effects. In short, the better you both feel at the start of the date and the more you try to boost each other’s mood, the more likely it is that sparks will fly.

The takeaway: once you understand the psychology behind flirting, you can take your flirting style to another level. For example, making an extra effort to put your partner in a positive mood with a playful flirting style will increase the odds of you having a good time together and feeling mutual attraction. Compliments and humor can go a long way toward this-just be careful with the humor piece, though. Read the room for nonverbal cues and remember that not everyone finds the same things to be funny.

You might also look for opportunities to demonstrate similarity to the object of your affection. Ask questions that elicit conversation around the things they enjoy or want in life and, when they express a similar interest, capitalize on the opportunity to highlight what you have in common.

One caveat to this, however, is that while similarity does play an important role in initial attraction, research shows that similarity in and of itself doesn’t guarantee long-term relationship happiness. What makes for successful flirting is one thing, but keeping a relationship going overtime is a whole other ball game.



Attraction is Also Situational

Who we’re attracted to is also a function of the situation you’re in. Who else is around? Is the bar about to close? How much have you had to drink? All of these factors can potentially influence who we’re attracted to.

For example, psychologists have found evidence of a “closing-time effect” at bars and nightclubs by surveying people about how attractive the other patrons are early in the evening, and then once again before going home. What they find is that, as the night goes on, attractiveness ratings tend to go up.

This is partly a function of scarcity—when there are fewer options around and/or limited time to make a decision, this changes our perceptions of the people around us. Also, if it’s an environment where alcohol is involved, the “beer goggles” might be setting in.


flirting and attraction


Speaking of scarcity, there’s also something to be said for playing a little “hard to get.” Research has found that people perceive others who are less available as more attractive than those with greater availability— at least when it comes to looking for love. When people are looking for casual sex, however, the pattern is reversed: more availability equals more attractiveness.

The takeaway: pay attention to your surroundings and the signals you’re putting out. For instance, if you’re looking for love, playing a little hard to get just might work in your favor. However, it’s important to not push this too far as it can also backfire. As one example, some studies have found that the longer people wait to respond to online messages on dating apps, their odds of receiving a reply go down. Being too unavailable can signal disinterest. If you’re worried about seeming “too eager” or available, wait a few minutes before responding instead of waiting hours or days.

Likewise, think about the places you go to meet people. While it’s fun to go to crowded and popular places (or at least it was pre-COVID), it’s also harder to stand out in these environments—especially if you’re not particularly extraverted. So if you’re frequenting busy places repeatedly but striking out, mix it up and try going out to new places at different times where you’ll have the opportunity to make more of an impression.


male couple flirting




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