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

Other Factors That May Affect How We Become Sexually Attracted To Someone

1. Other People’s Description Of You

Another study the author points to – which I thought was very interesting – is a classic study from 1965, which looked at how attractive we perceived people to be, depending on how others had described them. 

Descriptions were divided into four categories: solely positive, solely negative, negative initially then positive, positive initially then negative.

“The study showed that what people liked the most and what leads to the most attraction, was that the person who described you had gone from disliking to liking you.”

This may prompt you to ask a few follow-up questions. That’s what happened to me, anyway. 

  • Could it be that the results indicate a human inclination for competitiveness? 
  • Or is it a question of a sense of achievement – When a person goes from disliking to liking you, we feel we’ve somehow deserved it, and we feel attraction?

2. Slip-ups

Another study in Lehmiller’s book looked at clumsiness and awkward mistakes and how they affect how sexually attracted to someone we feel. 

“The study showed that when people we view as successful and clever make minor mistakes – like spilling wine on their shirt – we find them more attractive.”

It’s thought that successful people (at least people who we perceive as successful) become more human to us when they make minor mistakes, and that’s what increases the power of attraction.

But, we feel less attracted to people we think of as mediocre when they slip up in a similar way. (Seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it?)

Related: Sapiosexual, Intelligence, And Attraction at work

On A Concluding Note:

Understanding the psychology behind sexual attraction isn’t always straightforward. How we become sexually attracted to someone isn’t always clear-cut. Sometimes it has to do with how successful we perceive a person to be, other times it has to do with winning people over, or the fact that we as individuals have similar personalities.

By learning more about what sparks attraction, you can more easily regain attraction that’s once been lost, by focusing on the things that drew you in before. 

Written By Leigh Noren
Originally published on Therapy by Leigh
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⚠️ Liza is in training with WMHA and may not always provide the most accurate information.