Situational Factors In Attraction
The first step in attraction is being aware of the people to whom one might be attracted. Attraction is remarkably easy to stimulate; the more likely there is contact between people, the more likely they are to become attracted. A classic study by Leon Festinger and his associates (1950) demonstrated that the number of friends that a person had in college was best predicted by proximity, or a person's accessibility for interaction. The researchers found that students whose dorm rooms were centrally located made more friends than those whose rooms were isolated. Accessibility increased the opportunity both for positive social contact and for familiarity. Research on familiarity demonstrated that people reported greater liking for others the more that they were shown the other people's photographs, even when the exposures were brief and not consciously noted. This mere exposure effect is quite powerful, but only works if the stimuli initially evoke either neutral or positive feelings, which can produce a sense of comfort and security. If someone is repeatedly exposed to an obnoxious person, then repulsion may increase disproportionately, in a process termed a social allergy (Cunningham, Barbee, and Druen 1997).
Physical proximity is not the only basis of interaction accessibility. People can become attracted to people whom they encounter on television, and can now meet people from other countries almost as easily as they can meet people from their own neighborhoods using e-mail and the Internet. Nor is it necessary to meet someone in order to be attracted to the person. Sometimes, simply being aware of the prospect of future interaction with a target person can increase liking. Ellen Berscheid and her colleagues (1976) found that research participants increased their liking for an individual after learning that they would be going out on a blind date with the person, compared to people whom they believed they would not meet. Most people seem inclined to like those whom they encounter in their social environment.
Attraction also may be increased as a function of the time of night that one is making an evaluation. Susan Sprecher (1984) found that the later in the evening that people were asked to evaluate members of the opposite sex in a bar, the more positively the people were rated. Apparently, standards go down as the prospect of loneliness goes up. This tendency was more evident for working people than for college students, perhaps because the latter may have more chances to meet members of the opposite sex.
Situational factors that alter the emotional and motivational state of the perceiver may increase attraction to another person, if the other person seems appropriate for the way that the individual is feeling. For example, men who were instructed to read a sexually arousing passage from a novel rated pictures of women, especially ones whom the men thought might be their blind dates, as more attractive than did men who were not sexually aroused (Stephan, Berscheid, and Walster 1971). Although positive feelings often generalize to create more positive evaluations of other people, there are times when negative feelings can induce attraction. Individuals who are experiencing anxious arousal, such as before a dental exam or prior to crossing a high, scary bridge, often respond more positively to friendly and attractive people than they do at other times (Foster et al. 1998). For example, men who were induced to feel depressed by watching sad movies were particularly attracted to women who appeared warm and supportive, even if the women were not particularly beautiful. By contrast, men who were induced to feel elated by watching an upbeat movie were particularly attracted to a beautiful but cool woman, who presented an intriguing challenge (Cunningham, Druen, and Barbee 1997).