The Psychology of Love and Friendship

By Apurva Pophali

Humans have always been social animals, keeping together, forming family and community bonds to stay safe and allocate resources to promote better group survival chances. Evolutionarily however, what makes certain bonds special - like those of friendship and romance? Especially living in a world where we’re more connected than ever, what factors decide who we connect to the most? Social psychology’s theories of attraction might help us answer these questions more fully, taking into context a variety of factors influencing who we befriend and love.

According to social psychology, there are four main criteria that determine the likelihood of falling in love - physical attractiveness, similarity, proximity and reciprocity - and the more that all of these overlap, the higher chances there are of a relationship, whether romantic or platonic, working and flourishing.

Physical Attractiveness

Sigh. As sick as all of us are about hearing how “important” physical beauty is, the fact still remains - it is the first criteria over which people bond. First impressions last a long time, and the more attractive you are, the more likely it is that people will be open to conversation - leading to romantic attraction. And although we’d also like to believe that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, scientifically, there are traits that are deemed universally attractive, regardless of culture or race. These include youthful faces (like Leonardo DiCaprio), broad jawlines and pronounced cheekbones for men (like Robert Pattinson), and facial symmetry. Perhaps the media is to blame for perpetuating certain ideals to be attractive, but scientists have found that babies as young as 1 year old prefer to look at more attractive faces, suggesting that there is a bias for attractive faces that is either innate, or develops early on. In romance and friendship, this manifests itself in the ‘Physical Attractiveness Stereotype’ - the tendency to perceive attractive people as having more positive characteristics, like sociability and competence. This leads to increased interaction, and therefore an increased perception of trust and liking, which furthers romantic or platonic feelings.


The most fundamental factor that decides romantic success is similarity - while they say opposites attract, studies show that people bond over their similarities, and that having too many differences can spell the end of a relationship. People tend to share closer bonds with those of the same age, education level, race, religion, intelligence level, and socioeconomic status, since these commonalities provide a shared experience to bond over. Since there is more implicit understanding, there are usually less arguments, which prevents straining relationships more than necessary. For example, consider your best friend: chances are that they are in the same grade, same race, share the same religion, and have a similar background. This is the common foundation that friendships and romantic relationships are built off of - the more shared ideals, values, and backgrounds people have, the more likely their relationship is to work. This is apparent in the real world as well, where people often pursue social status similarity in their relationships, pursuing partners with similar attractiveness, levels of wealth, and levels of education. Usually if this is not the case, one partner provides more of one type of social status than the other, thus evening it out in the end. Similarities provide validations to experiences and emotions, bringing people closer together, increasing bonding, and therefore increasing feelings of love and friendship.


Physical proximity is another important factor determining romantic/platonic attraction and success. Simply sitting next to people on a daily basis increases liking, and increases chances of becoming closer. In school, it’s likely that you have become friends with the people you sit next to in class. Studies have shown that this is true even with assigned seating, wherein people sitting close together became friends despite the random assignment. This can be attributed to the ‘Mere Exposure’ effect - the tendency humans have to like and prefer stimuli, including people, that they see frequently. This could have evolutionary roots, where the more familiar the stimuli is, the less of a threat it seems, and thus as people become friends and share similarities, their walls come down. As physical proximity is vital in forming strong relationships, long-distance relationships take a lot more work to maintain, requiring more intention, since spontaneous conversation isn’t likely. This is noticeable as friends move to other locations - keeping in touch is hard, and the strength of bonds tends to decrease as distance increases.


The last factor is reciprocity - both people have to like each other with equal intensity, or the relationship can easily become one sided. If one party thinks of the other as an acquaintance, but the other believes they are best friends, it can get really confusing and annoying, straining the relationship. Reciprocity is important, as it allows both parties to determine the nature of their relationship with confidence, since they’re sure of what the other person feels. People reciprocating our affections, whether romantic or platonic, are more likely to treat us well, help us, and affirm that we are likable, contributing to a strong relationship.

In conclusion, while romance and friendship depend on a lot of factors, they all ultimately boil down to those listed above: physical attraction, similarity, proximity, and reciprocity, since all of these lead to increased conversations, which lead to increased bonding, and thus stronger relationships. Social psychology theories of attraction are a great basis to understanding love and attraction, since the more these four criteria overlap, the increased chances there are of relationships flourishing.


‌Publisher, A. removed at request of original. (2015, October 27). 8.1 Initial Attraction.; University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing edition, 2015. This edition adapted from a work originally produced in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that it not receive attribution.

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