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The Sense(s) of Attraction

According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, Americans spend upwards of $10 billion on for Valentine’s Day. And in true Valentine’s Day fashion, most of the adults surveyed were expecting to purchase candy, flowers, and/or a nice evening out for their partners. If you are one of those who celebrate Valentine’s Day, you might be thinking that these behaviors sound pretty familiar. The smell of roses and cologne will fill the air. Succulent wine and chocolate will dance on our tongues. We will go out dressed in our very best. Valentine’s Day truly is a day to indulge in some relational hedonism. But is the Valentine’s Day feel-goodery helpful for our relationships, or have we merely bought into a big consumer ploy? Although the answer to this question might be a matter of opinion, some research suggests that sensual pleasures – many of those that are heightened on Valentine’s Day – actually have a lot to do with feelings of attraction and relational health.

The Smells of Valentine’s Day

Walk through any department store in the mall and you’ll probably find Justin Bieber’s face smiling at you, just begging you to purchase his new line of women’s fragrances. It’s no secret that we like to smell good. But what does smell have to do with attraction? Interestingly, at least for women, smell is everything. When men and women were asked to assess various aspects of potential mates, women rated how a man smells to be more important than his looks, his voice, and how his skin feels. Body odor was even more important than a variety of social factors, such as the guy having friends or earning a lot of money! Interestingly, women were more sensitive to the types of fragrances men used, reporting that if the man was wearing a fragrance that was considered unpleasant, it would decrease their sexual interest.1

What is so special about smelling right? Humans, just like other animals, can be excited by pheromones, which are chemical messengers that are emitted into the environment from the body. Exposure to pheromones (through the nose) can lead men and women to engage in more sexual behaviors in their relationships, such as kissing and other forms of affection,2,3 and can lead women to rate male faces as more attractive.4 Finally, in the now infamous “t-shirt studies,” women preferred the smell of t-shirts worn by men with whom they were predetermined to be most biologically compatible.5 These researchers have also found that men and women unconsciously choose colognes and perfumes that enhance their own natural body odors.6 All-in-all, smelling right is important for both initial attraction and long-term sexual compatibility.

The Looks of Valentine’s Day

The way that you choose to dress this Valentine’s Day could also have an effect on how attractive you appear to your date. While it is pretty common knowledge that looking good is an important factor in how we determine attractiveness, we typically think of looking good in terms of facial features or body type. However, how someone is dressed can “trump” physical characteristics. In one study, males and females viewed opposite-sex models who were either low or high in attractiveness and who were wearing either low status (e.g., fast-food employee uniform) or high status (e.g., button-down and Rolex watch) outfits. Then, the participants were asked to rate how much they would want to engage in a variety of relationships – such as casual dating or marriage – with each model. For the attractive models, both men and women tended to be more interested in engaging in relationships with the models if they were wearing high status clothing. Interestingly (and maybe not surprisingly!), men did not show this pattern when the model was unattractive. In other words, even if the unattractive female model was wearing high status clothing, men were still uninterested in engaging in a relationship with her. On the other hand, women were still influenced by the outfits of male models, even if those models were unattractive. Females were more interested in relationships with unattractive male models if they were wearing high status outfits. What is the moral of the story? Dress nicely on Valentine’s Day!

The Flavors of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is also the time for wine and chocolate, and research suggests that this is probably not by accident. In a study by Dr. David Lewis, of the research group Mindlab, couples had their heart rates and brain activity monitored while they ate chocolate or while they kissed their partners. Surprisingly, participants’ brains were more active and their heart rates were four times higher when eating chocolate compared to when kissing (perhaps ladies should consider investing in some chocolate-flavored lipstick!). The researchers explain that chocolate contains a chemical that can raise levels of endorphins, which are the pleasure-substances in the brain. To really get things going, you may want to pair that chocolate with some wine. A study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that women who drink one to two glasses of red wine daily reported higher sexual desire, vaginal lubrication, and overall sexual function compared to those who abstain from drinking wine and those who drink more than two glasses of red wine daily.7 In another study published by the International Society for Sexual Medicine, men who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol were 30 percent less likely to report issues related to erectile dysfunction compared to men who abstained from alcohol.8 Taken together these studies suggest that combining a little wine and chocolate at the end of a nice meal might seem cliché, but according to these studies, both really can get the juices flowing.

Indulging in fine wines and chocolates, grooming ourselves to look our best for our dates, and putting on that perfect perfume or cologne are Valentine’s Day behaviors that go much deeper than keeping up with the clichés of the holiday. Instead, these sensual strategies can all play a role in developing a sense of attraction. So on this Valentine’s Day, put on some mood music and pay attention to your senses – they might be trying to tell you that love truly is in the air.

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1Herz, R. S., & Inzlicht, M. (2002). Sex differences in response to physical and social factors involved in human mate selection: The importance of smell for women. Evolution and Human Behavior, 23, 359-364.

2Cutler, W. B., Friedmann , E., & McCoy, N. L. (1988). Pheromonal influences on sociosexual behaviour in men. Archive of Sexual Behavior, 27, 1-13.

3Cutler, W. B., & Pinto , L. (2002). Pheromonal influences on sociosexual behaviour in young women. Physiological Behavior, 75, 367-375.

4Thorne, F., Neave, N., Scholey, A., Moss, M., Fink, B. (2002). Effects of putative male pheromones on female ratings of male attractiveness: Influence of oral contraception and the menstrual cycle. Neuroendocrinology Letters, 23, 291–297.

5Wedekind, C., Seebeck, T., Bettens, F., & Paepke, A. J. (1995). MHC-dependent mate preferences in humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences260, 245-249.

6Milinski, M., & Wedekind, C. (2001). Evidence for MHC-correlated perfume preferences in humans. Behavioral Ecology12, 140-149.

7Mondaini, N., Cai, T., Gontero, P., Gavazzi, A., Lombardi, G., Boddi, V., & Bartoletti, R. (2009). Regular moderate intake of red wine is linked to a better women's sexual health. The Journal of Sexual Medicine6, 2772-2777.

8Chew, K. K., Bremner, A., Stuckey, B., Earle, C., & Jamrozik, K. (2009). Alcohol Consumption and Male Erectile Dysfunction: An Unfounded Reputation for Risk? The Journal of Sexual Medicine6, 1386-1394.

Matt Baldwin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Matt is interested in existential, humanistic, and cultural psychological approaches to understanding the self. His main area of research focuses on the psychological benefits and consequences of nostalgia, both for one's personal and collective identities.

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