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Speaker spotlight - Professor Viren Swami

Valentine’s Day is this weekend. As such, CSF caught up with Professor Viren Swami, from the Department of Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, to talk about why we might be in love with the people we’re in love with.  Viren will be talking at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival during the event, ‘Attraction Explained: the science of how we form relationships’. Viren also has a new book out of the same name.

CSF: We all know the kinds of people we should go for, but what causes us to be attracted to less appealing characteristics?

VS: Well, I’d question the claim that we all know the kinds of people we should go for. This assumes, firstly, that there is an ‘ideal’ partner or soulmate out there, complete with all sorts of wonderful qualities, just waiting for us. The truth is that person just doesn’t exist. Life is complicated and people are complex. But secondly, it also assumes that we all have insight into what’s ‘right’ for us. A lot of the time, that insight is based on stereotypes of human behaviour, anectodes of relationships, or – simply put – rubbish advice about ‘what works’ that we’ve picked up along the way. Even were we armed with the best possible advice, there may be all sorts of reasons why we don’t make good relationship decisions; we might be carrying baggage from a previous relationship or we may not have good insight into our temperament or we’re overwhelmed by the stress of forming a new relationship.

CSF: In some cases, we can still be attracted to people we actually don’t like. Why is this?

VS: Being attracted to someone and liking someone can sometimes be very different things. For example, I might find someone incredibly physically attractive, but also dislike that person because they don’t reciprocate my affection or because they’re cold and distant when they’re with me. The formation of any relationship is a complex negotiation between the people involved in that relationship. It involves a whole array of different factors and it means that sometimes what begins as attraction doesn’t progress beyond that.

CSF: ‘Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ is common advice. What do you think are the precursors to attracting someone?

VS: This is the sort of advice you might expect from a five-year-old or a misogynist. It’s based on armchair psychology that simply has no basis in fact. Even if you think it’s good advice for attracting someone, the idea that it is the basis for healthy, mutually-benefitting relationships is just silly. And, what’s more, there are no ‘laws of attraction’, no guarantees that behaving in a particular way or doing something specific will result in another person liking you. There are many things that scientists know will facilitate attraction, but our lived experiences are so complex – after all, this is what makes us human – that to try and reduce our relationships to laws and rules simply doesn’t make sense.

CSF: What other myths surround the rules of attraction?

VS: Where do I begin?! The idea that opposites attract is probably the most popular myth of attraction, but there’s also the idea that playing hard-to-get works, that men care more about a partner’s physical appearance than women, that nice folk finish last, that the best partners for us are those that complement our personalities, and that distance makes the heart grow fonder. But perhaps the biggest myth of all is the myth that there are laws of attraction that can guarantee you a date tonight.

CSF: Your new book, Attraction Explained, talks about the factors that influence the formation of a relationship. What are those factors?

VS: Science has come a long way in the past century in uncovering the factors that are known to facilitate relationship formation. In the book, I talk about geographic proximity – the idea that we are more likely to form relationships with people who are geographically and socially nearby. I also talk about the importance of physical appearance, particularly in the early stages of a relationship, but also highlight why being warm, nice, and kind are just as important. I also mention the theory of reciprocity – the simple idea that we like people who like us – and present evidence that the greater the degree of similarity between two people the more likely they are to form a relationship.

CSF: What is different about your book? Is it based on new research?

VS: Unlike many other books on the same topic, I don’t make any promises. I’m not trying to sell you anything (other than the book, of course) and I certainly make no promise that reading my book is going to guarantee you a date at any point soon. Instead, I’ve tried to show what we know from decades of scientific research – including some research of my own – about the factors that facilitate attraction. Having a better understanding of these factors can help us make better decisions about our relationships, but could also help to explain why things went wrong with our past relationships. And along the way I’ve tried to bust a few myths of attraction.

CSF: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered during your research?

VS: Probably the way in which online dating has changed and continues to change the way we meet potential partners. Online dating now accounts for about a fifth of all heterosexual couplings and just under two-thirds of all same-sex couplings in the UK and US. And yet, even when we meet someone online, the same factors that influence offline relationships – all the stuff I mentioned above – continues to exert an outcome on relationship formation. The Internet may have changed where we meet potential partners, but the basic process of relationship formation hasn’t changed much at all.