In Brief

People often are attracted to potential mates who they perceive as loving, supportive and secure in their relationships--personality characteristics that most people believe they themselves possess or ideally would like to have, find University of Iowa researchers Eva C. Klohnen, PhD, and Shanhong Luo, a doctoral student. Their study appears in the October Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 85, No. 4).

"In an evolutionary sense, it makes sense that we would all be attracted to someone who is--or who we perceive to be--trustworthy, loving and sensitive, someone who will be there when we need them and who gives us support," says Klohnen, an assistant professor of psychology. "What is fascinating is that our actual and ideal self-concepts appear to be just as, or even more important than, perceptions of security."

People are attracted to others who they perceive as secure, similar to themselves and similar to their ideal selves because safety and familiarity are linked to well-being and survival, Klohnen says.

In the study, a total of 751 single college students participated in a series of three laboratory experiments aimed at evaluating potential partners with two different attachment styles: secure partners, who are supportive and confident in their relationships, and insecure partners, who are preoccupied, fearful or dismissing. Less secure romantic partners tend to have anxiety often centered around fears of abandonment and avoid expressing emotions in a relationship, Klohnen says.

The researchers used multiple samples and experimental designs to test whether actual attachment security and similarity--as opposed to perceived security, self-similarity or ideal-self similarity--are most important to initial attraction. For example, in one phase of the study, participants read descriptions of hypothetical dating partners who fit one of the attachment styles, and researchers asked them to imagine their feelings in a romantic relationship with that partner. Researchers tested perceptual variables by examining participants' descriptions of their actual and ideal self and of the hypothetical partner they were evaluating.

Regardless of the participants' own attachment styles, participants were most attracted to secure romantic partners. When it comes to attraction toward insecurely attached partners, however, participants tended to be attracted to those who were similar to themselves.

Furthermore, participants who perceived a partner as matching qualities of their actual or ideal selves--which often included characteristics of a securely attached person--were also found attractive, the study finds.

Klohnen, who studies relationship development, says the study backs up previous research that a person's perception of a partner is the most important component driving attraction, not the partner's actual personality characteristics.

"This is disconcerting because then attraction is based on perceptions and not on who the person truly is," Klohnen says. "Most intriguing is that participants in our study perceived the same hypothetical partner quite differently, suggesting that perceptual biases might play an important role in attraction."

Klohnen is conducting additional studies into attraction by examining the development of crushes. She says such studies on initial relationship formation are key in discovering the role attachment and perceptions play in relationship development over time.