Psychologist and attraction expert Viren Swami returns to host Attraction Lab at The Book Club in London, where guests will discover how the senses play a bigger role than they might think in shaping perceptions of each other. In this guest post, he shares a taster of what’s to come.

Humans have several senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. The organs associated with each sense sends information to our brains, where it is deconstructed and made sense of, which in turn helps us to understand, perceive, and act upon the world around us. But the senses also play an important role in attraction – whether you realise it or not. Here are just some of the ways in which your senses shape the attraction process…

SIGHT: Sight plays an important role in the attraction process – it takes less than a second to form impressions about other people. Eye contact seems to be especially important before any social interaction has taken place, and helps to signal interest, particularly when combined with smiling. Once social interaction takes place, eye contact remains an important ingredient that helps promote attraction. When people sustain eye contact, they feel and behave as though they are ‘in sync’ with each other. Simply gazing into another person’s eyes for a couple of minutes has also been shown to increase feelings of connection and passion. In fact, eye contact is important in any encounter, whether romantic or not, because it helps to signal our willingness to return affection.

SMELL: Compared to sight, smell plays a more subtle role in attraction. Research has suggested that we’re able to detect chemical messages released in sweat. For example, when men smelled pads worn by women at different times of the ovulation cycle, they showed a preference for pads worn during the womens’ fertile phase. But it’s not just women who emit odour-based signals – research with women suggest that they find attractive the scent of androstanol, the chemical produced by fresh male sweat. But be warned: this isn’t the same as saying that humans are influenced by pheromones: there is, as yet, no evidence that pheromones exist in humans.

HEARING: Beyond visual cues, the second most important predictor of attraction is whether or not daters have an attractive voice. There is some evidence that we change our voices when speaking to someone we find attractive. Men tend to lower the pitch of their voice, while women tend to heighten the pitch and use breathier voices. One reason why we place such importance on voice is because it may convey subtle information about the person we’re talking to. When we have no information about someone in a social interaction, we use these sensory cues as a shorthand way of making inferences about their personality. What we actually hear can also provide us with valuable information about someone in a social interaction – things like intelligence, social skills, and emotional state.

TOUCH: Unsurprisingly, touch is also an important ingredient for attraction. Fleeting touches can signal interest – they reflect a willingness to seek close contact, and help to promote reciprocal interactions. In the context of romance, touch can have some real, protective benefits. Some research suggests that people who held hands and hugged their romantic partners before a stressful event showed fewer signs of stress, compared to people who were on their own before the event. But touch isn’t just the preserve of romantic couples – it can also have a powerful effect between strangers. When someone touches us gently, such as on the arm, we’re more likely to perceive that person favourably and more likely to respond positively to requests for help. One reason for this may be that touch enhances feelings of empathy, particularly in emotional situations.

TASTE: There may be some truth to the saying “love is sweet” after all. Brain scan studies have suggested that sweet tastes and feelings of love activate similar areas of the brain. In fact, when participants tasted something sweet in a laboratory, they indicated greater willingness to initiate a relationship with a potential partner. One particular sweet food that seems to have a potent effect is chocolate. It appears that when people eat chocolate, they have faster heart rates, even compared to kissing one’s partner. One reason for this may be because chocolate contains chemicals that raise the levels of endorphins, which are associated with feelings of pleasure. Sweet foods may also increase dopamine levels, which is a key biological foundation for passionate love.

 

Tickets for Attraction Lab featuring Viren Swami are available here.

Viren Swami is Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, Director of the Centre for Psychological Medicine at Perdana University in Malaysia, and author of the new book Attraction Explained.