The Psychology Behind Sexual Attraction: How We Become Attracted

psychology behind sexual attraction

When it comes to the psychology behind sexual attraction, there are two key factors that affect how we become attracted to someone. We might not be aware of the influence of these factors, but subconsciously, they have a big impact on how attractive we find a potential mate.

In this post, I’ll be diving into those (plus a few bonus factors) to give you a better understanding of the psychology behind sexual attraction. (Also feel free to check out the post on most physically attractive zodiac sign female.)

The Psychology Behind Sexual Attraction: How We Become Attracted

Factor 1: Mood

We’re more often sexually attracted to someone when we ourselves are feeling good – or to people who make us feel good.

In sex researcher Justin Lehmiller’s book, The Psychology of Human Sexuality, he emphasizes the importance of our mood when it comes to attraction. He talks about a study made by Krosnick, Betz, Jussim & Lynn (1992), where they examined what happened when one positive and one negative stimulus was introduced to people before they met strangers.

“The study showed that those who’d been shown a picture of kittens tended to react more positively to the stranger, while those who’d been exposed to an image of snakes in a bucket, just before meeting the stranger, reacted more negatively to the unknown person.”

Lehmiller argued that you can view this as a case of classical conditioning, and I agree with him on this.

The fact that we’re more often sexually attracted to someone when we ourselves are feeling good – or to people who make us feel good, may not seem surprising in and of itself.

This is, however, interesting in relation to what “pick-up artists” usually preach.

Related: Owning Your Sexuality Unapologetically


A common pick-up method that was discussed a lot about 10 years ago is “negging”. In essence, it means you say something negative to someone to catch their attention. Like “how nice your sweater is, shame the trousers don’t match”, or “your friend’s really hot”. Pick-up artists claim this is a very successful way of picking someone up.

There are, however, several reasons why this isn’t a good strategy: 

  • For one, it’s not a very nice way of behaving, generally speaking. 
  • And also, according to science, it doesn’t work. 

There’s a greater chance the person you’re interacting with will become attracted to you if they’re feeling good – which isn’t that likely if you insult them. 

Factor 2: Similarity

Another interesting factor that determines how sexually attracted to someone we become, is similarity. Lehmiller means that this factor plays a role in the choice of partner – we more often choose a partner that’s about as physically attractive as we are. This is also a prominent factor when you consider our partners often have a similar intellectual capacity to our own. 

This obviously doesn’t mean everybody makes this kind of choice (just like with all research, this is more or less true for each individual) – but the pattern is there.

“An interesting aspect of similarity being important to attraction is that this, in itself, doesn’t guarantee happiness in our relationship or longevity, compared to couples where partners aren’t that similar.”

Lehmiller brings up dating sites as an example of this. He says that although the matching algorithms on popular matchmaking websites would have you believe that similarity equals happiness, this isn’t backed up by science. 

What seems important at the beginning of a relationship doesn’t remain over time. What is important over time for a relationship to last, is something I’ll be delving into in a future blog post, so stay tuned!

Related: 13 Science-Backed Reasons For Physical And Sexual Attraction

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Leigh Noren, MSc

Leigh Norén is a sex therapist and writer specialized in low libido, orgasmic difficulties, communication and relationship difficulties. She's been featured in Glamour, The Tab, Babe, Sexography, The Good Men Project and more. Leigh offers free online resources for a better sex life and happier relationship, sex therapy and online courses at her website www.therapybyleigh.comView Author posts