Does attractiveness rule the world?

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Babies only a few months old already spend more time looking at attractive faces compared to the unattractive, suggesting we could be genetically or biologically programmed to appreciate beauty and respond to it. But why should this be if, as many argue, beauty is 'in the eye of the beholder' or in other words a cultural construct? The evolutionary purpose of beauty and its role in our lives is unpacked and discussed - plus some tips on how to make yourself more attractive.

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Professor Raj Persaud


This lecture is going to be about the psychology of attraction, and seduction, and also about the maintenance of relationships.

I think we all have a natural interest in the psychology of attraction: how to be an attractive person, or how to ‘pull’, as some of the people who are publishing me would like to perhaps sub-title my next book! There is a problem in this subject, though, which is that often people think it’s rather trivial, but I think it is actually very, very important. It is important for many reasons. In my experience as a psychiatrist, seeing people who are not so happy, I think a large amount of human unhappiness centres around relationships, and people either being unhappy because they are lonely, or they are unhappy because they feel they are not quite in the right relationship for them.

One of my patients once commented to me, “Dr Persaud, I don’t need Prozac, I need a boyfriend.” That statement sent me down the pathway of thinking that really psychiatry has neglected the area of attraction somewhat, and as a result I have gone into this field of study.

An interesting statistic to think about is this: if you are in an unhappy marriage, your chances of developing clinical depression don’t just double, they don’t just go up by a factor of five or a factor of ten, they go up 30 times. So a happy marriage is extremely important for your mental health. Indeed, in my first book, Staying Sane, I said that who you choose to marry or who you choose to spend the rest of your life with is probably the one key decision you are making that has more impact on the future of your mental health than any other decision you make. It’s interesting that psychiatrists often aren’t around to advise at that crucial moment, when you are making that decision, when perhaps they should be!

There is a problem with talking about this subject, and it’s a problem that I experience when I see perhaps my wealthier patients, who sit there, hands folded, and they either verbalise this direct or you can see them thinking this when you try to give them advice. They are thinking to themselves, “If you’re so clever, Dr Persaud, how come I’m so much wealthier than you?” and that’s why they’re rather resistant to taking advice.

The title of my next book is going to be Simply Irresistible: The New Psychology of Seduction. I expect a lot of you are thinking, “How come Raj is going to be talking to us about how to be more attractive when he is really rather resistible?”! So I’m going to tell you a little bit about some experiences I had when the BBC sent me - purely, I emphasise, for the purposes of research - they sent me speed dating, to rather brutally test some of the theories that I was advocating about how to make yourself more attractive.

But before I tell you a bit about that experience, I will mention another thing that people often say, which is: “Well, people have been falling in love and having children and staying together for millions of years before modern psychology and psychiatry came along, so why do we need modern psychology and psychiatry to tell us about how to be attractive and how to seduce? It’s been going on naturally for millions of years.” But I think we do need modern psychology and psychiatry at the present because we are living in a very interesting moment in terms of attraction.

Let’s go back 150 or 200 years ago. Most of us would be living in villages, of which the population would have been around 150 to 200 people. In fact, a group of 150 to 200 people is actually the natural size of human groups going way back into our evolutionary history. Imagine living in a village of 150 to 200 people all your life. You’d be born there, you would live your life, and you would die there. So think about who you would marry. Well, the number of eligible possibilities in terms of people of your age, single members of the opposite sex, would be a mere handful, maybe 10 or 20. So choice was very constrained back then. If you were really unlucky and happened to be born into the same village that Michelle Pfeiffer was born into or George Clooney, then obviously you’d have to stand patiently in line while they mopped up the desirable members of the opposite sex. But the likelihood is that the most desirable member of the village that you might be competing with, if they were the most desirable of a group of 15 to 20 people, they probably weren’t that desirable. In other words, the competition was a lot less back then. Think about it today. Today, we are bombarded with images of the most attractive and desirable people on the planet, and that person might be someone from Brazil or Tibet . The media picks up the most desirable and attractive people anywhere in the world and broadcasts their images to us, so naturally now all of us now, in the marketplace as it were, are competing with Michelle Pfeiffer or George Clooney, and that makes life a lot tougher compared to when we were living in a village of 150 or 200 people.

Another issue is that we are much more geographically mobile, and our lives are much busier, so when you meet an attractive member of the opposite sex - and you might meet them in a bar or on the tube - the likelihood is, unlike 150 or 200 years ago, you didn’t grow up with them, so you know very little about them. Therefore you have got to start working out not only whether you are attracted to them or how to attract them, which is one key hurdle you’ve got to cross, but you’ve also got to try and work out whether the two of you are going to make it together in the longer term. That involves a lot of work, because you don’t know much about them, you’ve got to find out stuff about them. You probably live in a different part of town to them. It’s really interesting, this notion of how we fall in love with strangers. A whole genre of films is based around the idea of meeting the parents. Well, 150 years ago, you knew the parents anyway, because you grew up with them, so you had a lot of information about people: you grew up with them, you knew a lot about them, you knew what their foibles were, you knew what their bad habits were, you knew what they were really like when you came to make the decision about who you were going to commit yourself to.

That’s a very different situation to the way things happen today. The modern world is much busier, and think about what modern technology does in terms of broadcasting very desirable members of the opposite sex, which mean we have a tougher time in terms of comparison. It explains why it’s important to get as much help as any of us can in terms of the psychology, what science tells us about the psychology of attraction. I think we need all the help we can get at this particular moment.

But why would you have any confidence that some of the ideas I’m going to talk about could be of any help? Well, the BBC approached me, when they became aware of the fact that I was writing a bit about the science, the psychology of attraction. They suggested that I go speed dating, and they would record me. I don’t know if any of you have been speed dating. Whenever I ask an audience, no one seems to have ever been speed dating… unlike myself! Basically, when you go speed dating - and this is a pastime that’s really taking off - you go to a bar or a nightclub that’s been set aside for this activity for the evening, you sign up, you fill out some forms, and you basically get to meet between 9 to 20 or 25 members of the opposite sex. You meet them across a table, and usually the women stay in one place and the men move, and after three minutes – it’s usually an average of just three minutes – a whistle is blown and you move on to the next person. So you’ve got three minutes in which to make an impact and in which to make an assessment of who you’re attracted to. At the end of the evening, you fill out a form where you tick a box saying who you would like to connect with again romantically, who you really don’t want to see again at all, or who you might want to meet again just for friendship. So you’re getting some rather brutal feedback from a large number of members of the opposite sex rather quickly.

The BBC were attracted to this rather brutal feedback as a kind of acid test of some of the theories that I was coming up with in terms of the psychology of attraction. So they suggested they would record a programme based around me going speed dating and trying out these psychological techniques. I wasn’t so keen on this idea… for many reasons, not least that I spent my whole adolescence completely unable to get a date. My wife always hates it when I say that because she says, “Well, thanks a bunch for telling everyone! It means I’ve ended up with a real loser. Think about my reputation and image, for God’s sake, if you’re going around saying this.” But if you spent your whole adolescence completely unable to get a date and the most frequent comment women would make to me when I would approach them would be “Beat it, loser”, you could see why I was somewhat nervous at the prospect of going speed dating. And the feedback of all these women rating, ticking the box, whether they wanted to meet me again romantically, was not only going to be fed back to me but broadcast to millions of the British public! I was very nervous indeed about this prospect bu,t on the other hand, the BBC was right, this was an acid test of some of the ideas I was coming up with, so I agreed to do it. The other people taking part in the speed dating knew that the BBC were recording it, but they didn’t know which person there was the guinea pig, as it were, and they didn’t know what the programme was about, so they didn’t quite understand or know the set up, which was important for the purposes of the experiment.

So, very nervously, I went to the bar and hung out with the other men who were there to go speed dating, and they were all trying to steady their nerves with quite a few drinks at the bar before the thing was due to begin. I asked them, “What sort of tactics or strategies are you guys going to be using this evening?” They all looked rather blankly at me, and said, “We’re not going to use tactics or strategies. We’re just going to be ourselves.” I had to hold myself back from saying to them, “Have you ever wondered why you’re single? It’s because you’re being yourself. Time to try some tactics and strategies, may I suggest?”!

Anyway, so I did the speed dating thing, and on this particular evening, it was nine other women that I was meeting, and they were meeting nine men. We had three minutes on each occasion, then the whistle blew and we moved on. I will tell you that one of the women - when I was speaking to her and I said, “What sort of man are you looking for?” - she said, “I’m looking for a man with a British passport because I’m from Turkey and I need to marry someone with a British passport so I can stay in the country”! Now, it’s when you meet people like that that you think, if I’m going to go speed dating, I’m going to bring my own whistle along, and after just a minute, I’m going to blow it so I can move on to the next person!

Anyway, my wife was observing me in action from the safety of the bar. There was a little bit of marital tension because I had explained to her beforehand that for the purposes of the research, I would have to take my wedding ring off because, you know, you can’t really go speed dating with a wedding ring! There was a little bit of tension around that issue, but she did allow me to take my wedding ring off. As I said, I was very nervous, and we left at the end of the evening, and the producer gathered up all the forms stating what the women had rated me as. I was due to ring the producer the next morning to find out the result. At 9.01 a.m., I rang her. I wasn’t nervous or anything – I don’t want you to get that idea! She picked up the telephone on the fifth ring – I mean, what was that about? – and I said to her, “So, how did it go last night?” She said, “Oh, I think it will make a really great programme, Raj!” I said, “Forget that! How many of the nine women ticked the box that they wanted to meet me again romantically?”

So, before I reveal some of the psychological techniques that I used that evening, does anyone want to take a stab at how many of the nine women ticked the box? Now, remember we’re starting from a very low base line of “Beat it, loser,” and being unable to get a date, plus I had been married for 11 years at the point of doing this experiment and I had known Fran for five years before that, so I’d been “off the market”, as it were, for quite a long time. So? Five? Thank you for that! That’s a rather crushing endorsement! Four? The bids are going down!

Nine out of nine ticked the box that they wanted to see me again romantically, and I think that’s a really interesting result. Obviously, it’s great for my ego, but actually, I don’t think it’s anything to do with me, it’s to do with the techniques I was using that evening from the science of psychology. What I think is really interesting about the score of nine - given it’s like a total endorsement of the techniques – is that it reveals that in addition to some of the things we think about in terms of human behaviour, like attraction, being mysterious, and poetry, there are actually some real laws out there, almost at the level of physical laws, that determine human behaviour, and if you put these in place, you can get a score like nine out of nine.

Now, as the talk goes on, you will hear and work out for yourself some of the techniques I used, but at the heart of one of the interesting developments in the psychology of attraction is the idea that there are quite profound gender differences in what men and women are attracted to. We know from a lot of research that men place a lot of store on physical appearance in women, and in particular clues to youth are very important to men. One of the evolutionary psychology theories about this is that men are quite keen to fertilise a woman and pass on their genes to the next generation, and therefore they place great store on meeting a young woman, because with older women, generally speaking, particularly those entering the menopause, fertility drops off dramatically. So men are very focused on clues that indicate youthfulness because it guarantees – and I’m sorry, I’m going to be very direct and blunt in the way that I have to be when we’re talking about some of these subjects – it guarantees an ovulating female. That’s very important if you’re going to pass on your genes to the next generation, if that’s the basic biological drive. So men are very focused on youthfulness in women.

It’s very interesting the other way round, because men don’t have a menopause. Although fertility does decrease for men, it doesn’t drop off in quite the same dramatic way as it does for women – women are less focused on cues of appearance that indicate youthfulness. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that women quite value experience, and anything that might indicate status. That seems to be particularly important for women. They go for anything that indicates higher status amongst men, and often as men get older, they are moving up their careers, and that tends to mean an older man is often of higher status than a younger man. One of the theories as to why women are particularly focused on status is the idea that thousands of years ago women, being the weaker sex physically, were very vulnerable. If you think about the fact that thousands of years ago the favourite Saturday afternoon activity of young men was pillaging and raping, then women were very vulnerable and it was incredibly important to hang out with a male partner who could protect you. You might be hanging out with a very nice guy, but if he couldn’t protect you, then you were really at the mercy of the next strong bloke that came along who was really keen on a bit of raping and a bit of pillaging. Women had to focus on being protected and how to get protection. This is the evolutionary psychology theory. So women would want to hang out with a very, very strong man, who could beat off anyone else who might come after them.

It is very interesting in terms of the latest research on the psychology of appearance: men are very drawn to female appearance where weight is an issue, and women are not drawn to men where weight seems to be the issue in terms of appearance; but shape, the male shape, is very important. In particular, women seem to like a V-shaped male torso, i.e. a very strong upper body in terms of bigger pectoral muscles. A V-shape appears to be quite important to women in terms of the male silhouette figures they rate as very attractive. Pectoral muscles are the muscles you use when you punch people. It is very interesting that, whether women will realise it or not, they are unconsciously drawn to the male body of the kind of guy who is useful in a brawl. So it may be that one of the things they are doing is looking for someone that might protect them.

Another thing you could do as a woman is go for a high status guy, i.e. the leader of the tribe, because the leader of the tribe is going to protect you. The young people around doing a bit of raping and pillaging aren’t going to come after you if you are hanging out with, or you are the partner of, the leader of the tribe, the alpha male. So status seems to be important to women.

Now, one of the little cues for status, for example, in today’s world, is intelligence. It’s very interesting that research indicates that women really value intelligence in a man, much more so than men do in a woman. There was a very interesting experiment, where people were asked to rate, “What is the lowest IQ you would tolerate in a potential partner for (a) a one night stand, (b) a medium term relationship, or (c) marriage?” Here’s what’s really interesting: with women, asked what was the lowest IQ they would tolerate in a man for a one night stand, a medium term relationship or marriage, the IQ doesn’t drop off that much. In other words, high IQ or relatively high IQ is quite important to women, even if it’s just a one night stand, which is a fascinating finding. For men, IQ is rated as quite important in a woman for marriage and a medium term relationship, but when it comes to a one night stand, as long as you’re a carbon-based life form, then it doesn’t really matter much! It’s an interesting clue that there are some quite profound gender differences going on here.

If intelligence might be a clue to status, intelligent men might go on to having high status, and that is what women are genetically programmed to value. One of the proxy measures of intelligence is thought to be humour. When you look at what women say they are looking for in a man, they often say, “I’m looking for a man with a good sense of humour.” In fact, it’s even got its own little acronym “GSOH” in the lonely hearts columns – GSOH, good sense of humour. Now, one of the psychological theories here is that a man’s wit and good sense of humour, that is actually a proxy measure of intelligence, and the idea is that the Woody Allen type, the guy who is very witty, is signalling his intelligence through his wit. What’s really fascinating about that idea is that the woman is attracted to the wit, but at a deeper, biological, unconscious level, it’s the intelligence may be that she thinks the wit is signalling that she’s really being drawn to.

Having said all that, I had three minutes with these women, and I did different things with different women in terms of techniques. Knowing what I just said about what women are looking for in a guy in terms of intelligence, for example, what are the sort of professions might you pretend to be following in the three minutes you have if you want to impress or, as my publisher might put it, pull a member of the opposite sex? Anyone want to volunteer? Let me ask the men first, and then we’ll ask the women in a second. What male profession do you think would maximise attraction? Priest? [Laughter] Very interesting! A witty priest?! Okay. Drag artist? Right… okay… may be you’re going with the good sense of humour thing. One other sensible suggestion? Doctor? Okay. Doctor’s an interesting one, because doctor may be a cue for intelligence, theoretically, and maybe a cue for status possibly – maybe useful in an emergency, might look after you when you’re not so well.

Let’s ask some women now. Artist? Heart surgeon – plastic surgeon?! Okay, you see how specific women are! They don’t just want a surgeon… they want a plastic surgeon! The men are saying priest – they don’t specify which denomination. You see how specific the women are?! Well, it’s very interesting you should say that, because what I said, for some of the women I met that evening, I said I was a paediatric heart surgeon. I said I spent my day mending tiny broken little hearts! Listen, it’s a war out there! I had to use every weapon in the arsenal!

Okay, let me ask you again, in the three minutes you have got, one thing you could do is communicate a lot of information about a particular hobby or interest. Let me ask the men again – what hobby or interest, if you could pick one, might maximise attraction from the opposite sex? Someone’s going to say drag artist again, I’m sure of it! Photography? Why do you think that might attract…?! That’s vaguely sleazy I think, isn’t it, photography? Reading? Okay, yes, reading is interesting, yes. Reading might indicate, psychologically, a little bit of introversion, but I can see that it might indicate certainly intelligence. Anyone else, another bloke, wants to have a go? Cooking? Yes, I like the idea of cooking, but you’re not drawing on some of the psychological stuff I’ve been talking to you about before.

Let’s ask the women – what hobby? Tantric sexuality? In the first three minutes? It would take a lot of confidence for a guy to say that! I suppose I could get the paediatric heart surgeon thing out the way! I like that though, tantric sexuality. Sorry? Sports? Any particular sport? Rugby, okay. DIY? So someone who can fix things around the house.

Drawing on my knowledge of the psychology of attraction literature, I said that at weekends I liked to fly aeroplanes, and that the aeroplane I had was only a small one, with enough room for just two people, and space in the back for a weekend bag. I said to one of the women, “How do you fancy flying down to Nice this Saturday for lunch?” She gave me this fantastic reply. She said, “Sounds a bit much for a first date,” which I thought was a great answer!

One of the little experiments I set up to test this idea about intelligence and gender difference was a mega-lab experiment we did on Tomorrow’s World, several years ago, when Tomorrow’s World was still on the BBC. We set up an experiment whereby members of the public would watch the TV programme and they would vote for a choice of two members of the opposite sex. Basically, we had two pictures. One of the members of the opposite sex was definitely physically more desirable than the other, as rated by some independent raters, but these members of the opposite sex were inviting you, a member of the audience, to go on a weekend, a romantic weekend away, to the Caribbean. They wrote a little lonely hearts column about the kind of things they want to do on the weekend away with you. So it went something like: “Please come with me on this wonderful weekend away to the Caribbean, and we’ll swim in the shimmering blue Caribbean Sea ” etc. etc. We changed the wording of the ad slightly depending on which picture people were looking at. We changed a couple of words, so instead of saying “Come with me to the Caribbean and we’ll swim in the shimmering blue sea,” which is what one ad said, the other one said, “Come with me to the Caribbean and we’ll swim in the shimmering azure sea,” azure being a very rare word for blue.

What we were trying to do, very subtly, below conscious levels, was communicate something about the writer of that ad, i.e. someone who uses the word azure instead of blue has a much broader vocabulary than someone who uses the word blue, and that may be a subtle clue to higher intelligence, or longer education perhaps. Now, if you just think, one or two words were very subtly changed like that – we’re talking about a very subtle change, and we made it so that the slightly less attractive member of the opposite sex had the azure code word in the ad. The really interesting finding was that the men were swung dramatically by the azure thing, so men were actually drawn a lot to the woman who was indicating a higher vocabulary, whereas the women stuck, generally speaking, to being drawn to physical appearance, which went slightly against what the psychological literature might have predicted.

But given that this idea is an old one, may be women today, who are more financially independent, are actually less preoccupied with being looked after by the higher status male and are becoming more male in their way of thinking about the opposite sex, in other words, they’re being locked on a little bit more to physical appearance. But whatever, what you will find is whenever I’m talking about anything, I use the word azure a lot! That would be one tip I would give you.

I’m going to show you a clip of a seduction in action to illustrate some of the principles that I’m going to be talking about this evening, and it’s a clip that comes from the film Groundhog Day. Now, Groundhog Day is a famous film from about 10 or 15 years ago, and Bill Murray stars in it. It’s a strange film, because in this film, Bill Murray plays a weatherman who works for Channel 9 Pittsburgh, and he goes to cover a weather festival called the Groundhog Day Festival in a hick town called Ponsatoni, just outside Pittsburgh . He has this very strange experience of going to film a recording – because he’s a weatherman, he’s recording an out and about film clip for his channel about the Groundhog Day, but he has this very strange experience of having finished the clip and trying to get home. There’s a blizzard, they have to go back to Ponsatoni, they stay the night, he wakes up the next morning, and low and behold, it’s Groundhog Day yet again; he re-experiences Groundhog Day exactly as it was the first time round. It’s a very strange experience because everyone else thinks, or seems to be appearing as though, they are having Groundhog Day for the very first time. Only Bill Murray is living through Groundhog Day yet again. The same day repeats itself, and he wakes up the next morning, and low and behold, it’s Groundhog Day yet again - he’s trapped in this endless cycle, living the same day over and over again, where only he is aware that he’s living the same day over and over again. Everyone else seems to be experiencing the day as it was for the very first time.

Before I show you the clip from the film, I want to just take a little tangent because what I find fascinating about this film is about the notion of eternal recurrence, and that is a notion that comes from Nietzschean existential philosophy. What I find fascinating about Groundhog Day is it’s the only major Hollywood movie I know to be based on Nietzschean existential philosophy! Nietzsche was a famous German philosopher. He’s often accused of having been the founding father of Nazism, but there’s a lot of controversy about that. Nietzsche had a lot of very strange ideas, and he had this idea of eternal recurrence. He said something along these lines: imagine if a demon comes to you and tells you that you are going to live your life, you’re going to die, there’s going to be no afterlife, no heaven, no hell, but you’re going to suddenly find yourself born again, and you’re going to repeat your life exactly as you’ve lived it now, moment by moment, right again up until you die, and then you’re going to repeat your life again and again, moment for moment, until eternity – endless recurrence into eternity. What would your reaction to that prospect be? He says this: your reaction to that prospect tells you whether you have lived the life worth living, because if you, and he uses the phrase, “would fall upon the ground and gnash your teeth at the prospect” of having to re-live your life, make every single decision again, and keep to the same decision, if you would find that a really horrendous prospect, then you have not led the life worth living. So the idea of eternal recurrence is about the idea that maybe if we thought about that prospect, we would take more personal responsibility for our lives, we’d be more careful, and be more serious about some of the decisions that we make. But Nietzsche also had embodied within this idea a much more dramatic idea. He said that if you think of time as infinite, there’s no beginning and end to time, almost by definition, yet within time there are events; yet there can only be, he argues, a finite, though large, possible number of events, and if there is only a finite number of possible events that have to fill up infinite time, then it logically, inevitably follows that everything repeats eventually, which is a fascinating idea. I’m not saying I agree with it, because what it means is that we’ve all met before at some time, billions of years ago, and will meet again billions of years into the future. So actually, he was being deadly serious about the idea of eternal recurrence.

Let’s go to the film now, because the film embodies this idea. Phil, the weatherman, was a very Machiavellian, jaundiced character, very ambitious – he wants to get on. He doesn’t just want to be a weatherman on Channel 9 Pittsburgh. He seems himself as being a major news anchor at some point in the near future. He’s a very thrusting, ambitious, Machiavellian man. He sees other people as means to his own ends. His producer, who goes out to film the Groundhog Day in Ponsatoni, is a lady called Rita. Rita is the complete opposite to Phil. Rita is a very sweet, attractive young woman, who is someone who is not focused on her career, but is a very kind, gentle, non-Machiavellian person. So Bill Murray, playing the part of the weatherman Phil, experiences re-living Groundhog Day again and again and again. At first, he’s startled and surprised, but then, in a typical Machiavellian way, he wonders how he can use this to his advantage. He thinks, how can I seduce Rita, given I’m living the same day over and over again. So what he does is he gathers information about Rita during the day to then use in the seduction the next day, to try and improve his chances of seducing Rita. Now of course, Rita’s totally innocent to this because, in this very strange film, Rita’s totally unaware that the day is repeating itself over and over again. In the clip I’m going to show you, Bill Murray starts about seducing Rita, and you’re going to see the clip come again and again rather repetitively, but that’s because the whole day is repeating, and we’re just seeing that narrow bit that repeats what is relevant - but bear in mind that Rita is totally naïve to this repetition that’s occurring that Bill Murray is living through.

[Clip plays]

That was a seduction occurring, and obviously Bill Murray had a great advantage over the rest of us when we try to seduce someone in that he had a chance to have a go at it again and again and again. You could see, he kept making mistakes - his natural reaction was always the wrong one, and he had to learn the hard way. The fact that it was repeating allowed him to learn how to plan the perfect seduction.

It’s interesting to me that the killer move is the one at the end where she says “I studied 19th Century French poetry,” and he then reels off the French poem. Why is that the killer move? There’s a lot of interesting psychology in there. Let me demonstrate that by doing a little psychology game or experiment I often play with many of my clients, which is to set them a little test as to your flirtation ability. The test is this: imagine that you walk into a bar and the bar is totally deserted. There’s only the barman rather boredly cleaning a glass, but sitting at the bar is the most desirable member of the opposite sex. Pick your ultimate fantasy figure. It may be Michelle Pfeiffer or George Clooney. So you’ve got a golden opportunity here - there’s no one else, the bar is deserted – to go over and order a drink and say something casually to Michelle Pfeiffer or George Clooney that might lead to a conversation and might hopefully lead on to something else. So I set people the question, “What would you say?”

Now, let me first of all start off with what you should not say. What you shouldn’t say is what most people say they would say. Don’t say to George Clooney, “I really loved you in ER”! Why shouldn’t you say that to George Clooney? Well, he’s heard it a billion times before, and if you’re George Clooney and people are constantly coming up to you during the day and going, “I really loved you in ER,” it’s actually vaguely aggressive and nasty to hear that a billion times. If you go up to him and say, “I really loved you in ER,” that’s a real turn-off, so don’t say that! And yet, when I ask people, “What would you say?” 99 of them say, “That’s what I would say”! So don’t say that. In a way, the way I’ve structured the test is two-fold. One of the things to think about is I’ve asked you to think about how you would flatter someone who’s used to flattery, which is a tough call. I’ve picked people who are used to flattery when I said Michelle Pfeiffer or George Clooney, so how do you flatter? This in a way is what Bill Murray is trying to do in the film clip you have just seen, in this tough situation that he’s in.

Well, if you’re going to flatter George Clooney or Michelle Pfeiffer and do it effectively in a way that actually sparks their interest in you, pick a really obscure film they were in that no one, or very few people, have seen. Pick a really obscure part that they played, maybe right at the beginning of their career, and make an observation about their acting that they may not have heard before in that part. Say, “You know what, I really liked you in that thing you did back in 1972,” etc., etc., etc. and that is more likely to get their interest, because you’ve signalled an in-depth interest, at a deeper level than they are used to from people around them. The 19th Century French poetry killer move there is part of that. But what’s really interesting about this is the techniques you could say that Bill Murray is using are flattery and ingratiation, and this is what everyone tries when they’re “on the pull” or doing seduction.

Psychological experiments suggest a radically different strategy. It’s a famous experiment done way back in the ’Sixties whereby the psychologists sent out confederates to go on dates. In the first condition, on the date, the confederate agrees with everything the other person says throughout the date, so that’s a bit like the Bill Murray strategy here, and then at the end of the date, you get a rating for how attractive the confederate is found by the other person, who doesn’t know up until that point they’ve been taking part in an experiment. In condition two, the confederate goes out and disagrees with everything the other person says throughout the date. “Lovely evening!” “No, I don’t agree.” “Nice restaurant.” “No, I don’t agree.” “Quite like the wine.” “No, I don’t agree.” As you can imagine, that is a little bit of a nightmare date, being with someone who disagrees with everything you say. It will come as no surprise that in that second condition, at the end of the date, when the confederate is rating for how attractive they are found, they’re not found to be very attractive, particularly in comparison with the first condition. But then the psychologists threw in a third fascinating condition. In this condition, the confederate goes out and starts off the date disagreeing with everything the other person says, and then halfway through the date, switches to agreeing, and in that date condition, you are found far and away the most attractive of all. You are found much more attractive than in the condition where you just agreed with the other person throughout the date.

Any theories as to why this is a particularly attractive manoeuvre, to start off disagreeing and then switching to agreeing, and I’ll then tell you what the psychologists think? [Audience member] Yes, that’s a very good idea. The psychologists would put that more technically, because we have to use technical language in order to sort of claim special knowledge! We would say that you’ve indicated, you’ve made the other person feel they’ve had an impact, because you started off not really being very warm to them and then you warmed up by then starting to agree. So the feeling you’re having an impact on another person is extremely seductive, so that’s why that might be.

There’s another interesting idea: if you imagine you are on a date with someone and at the beginning of the date they start off disagreeing with everything you’re saying – that is quite stressful, and you’re thinking, “God, I’m on a nightmare date here!” So your stress levels go up. Then they start agreeing with everything you’re saying, so your stress levels now come down. Relief sets in. You think, “Thank God, it’s not turning into a nightmare date.” Now, here’s the interesting theory: psychologists argue that you mistake the relief for attraction! That is often the case, that often we’re experiencing an emotion and we’re not sure how to label it, and we look around our external environment and we get a clue as to how to label it.

I, in a very Machiavellian way, use this technique myself. If you are due to give a lecture, rather like this one this evening, and the lecture is due to start at six o’clock, I find that if you turn up at 5.15, in plenty of time for the lecture, the organisers are moderately pleased to see you. If you turn up at five to six, they are really enthusiastic when you walk through the door! They are absolutely thrilled, because what you’ve done there, you’ve raised their anxiety levels, first of all, and then you’ve brought them down, and you will find that organisers are really giving a massive standing ovation at the end of any talk where you’ve turned up just five minutes before and they were thinking, “God, the guy might not turn up! What am I going to do?” So that’s part of the same psychological tactic.

Now, there’s another twist to what the psychologist did with this condition. He asked the confederates on the third condition to switch later and later in the date, so they left more and more disagreement and then switched later and later to agreeing. The really fascinating finding is the later you leave the switch, the more attractive you are found, which ties in a little bit with the kind of stress relief theory I think.

I need to make one very important point, particularly to men, because when they hear this experiment, they often forget the little bit about switching! You do have to switch! Don’t leave it like right to the end, when you’ve taken them to the door of their flat and they’re about to go in – “Oh, I’m going to start agreeing now!” It’s a little bit late!

The idea that elevating stress and then bringing it down, is linked to romance, is very interesting. When people go on a date, they often think about doing relaxing things, like having a nice meal, seeing a nice relaxing film, but this data about the idea that raising people’s anxiety actually contributes to attraction is very interesting.

There’s a very famous experiment in the psychology of attraction where men are asked to walk across a bridge, and there are two conditions. One bridge is a very safe bridge, very well built, and is over a very shallow drop, and they meet a woman at the other end of the bridge and then they’re asked to rate how attractive they find that woman. In the second condition, they’re asked to go over a bridge that’s very rickety, is swaying in the wind, doesn’t appear to be very well constructed, and is over a very long drop, so it’s highly stressful crossing this bridge. They meet the same woman at the end, and they’re asked to rate her attractiveness. They find the woman at the end of the rickety bridge much more attractive than the woman at the end of the safe bridge. So there’s something about stress that heightens attraction. Again, we’re not quite sure what is going on, but it’s also interesting that marriages and weddings go up a lot at wartime. Wartime is a high stress occasion, yet war is often linked with being a very romantic time.

One theory about why stress might contribute to romance and attraction is a genetic evolutionary theory, which is that your genes wake up to the fact that stress is around, there’s danger around, we may not be around for much longer, and therefore the imperative to procreate might actually be a lot higher, and that’s one of the reasons why people might be in the mood for attachment a bit more.

It suggests an explanation for why young adolescents going on a date often like to go and see a horror film, because may be the horror film raises their stress levels, and they cling on to each other. May be when we are facing danger or stress, the need to affiliate and bond goes up because that’s a safer thing to do at that time.

People are often a bit sceptical about these evolutionary psychological ideas, but these ideas are often the only ones that can explain some really puzzling things. For example, why do women wear blusher or rouge? Anyone have any theories about that, because it’s meant obviously to enhance women’s attractiveness, but why would it do that? [Audience member] Okay, that’s one theory – it makes you look healthier, to have a bit of red in your cheeks, certainly. [Audience member] It makes you look warm? Okay, right. [Audience member] It makes you look sexually excited? Yeah, possible, possible… One person said a very interesting theory to me, which is it makes you look like you are blushing because you are embarrassed and therefore you are naïve, and that may be a clue to youthfulness, etc. But there’s an interesting evolutionary psychology theory, which runs along these lines: I don’t know whether you knew this or not, but when women are ovulating, peripheral visa dilation occurs, in other words, their blood vessels to the skin widen, more blood flow occurs to the skin. Women’s skin is actually slightly redder at the time that they’re ovulating. So one of the interesting evolutionary psychology theories is that putting a bit of blusher is actually a way of signalling to men, “Hey, I’m ovulating! This is the time to get busy!” Rouge and blusher have been found in terms of red dyes in archaeological digs dating from 70,000 years ago, so it’s a very ancient technique. Another theory is this: that women realise that the ovulating women who have got the slightly redder skin are getting more male attention, and there is some evidence that when you show men photographs of women who are ovulating and the men don’t know this, they do rate those photographs as slightly more attractive, which ties in with the evolutionary psychology idea. But if you’re living thousands of years ago, and you know that some of the women who are ovulating who’ve got the slightly redder skin are getting all the male attention, then it makes sense to redden your skin to confuse the men as to who is really ovulating or not. So in other words, it’s a confusion tactic possibly, but again, that’s an evolutionary psychology idea. It’s one of the few ideas that make sense of why women would use rouge or blusher.

Here’s another idea: why do women use a lot of eye makeup sometimes? What’s the point of eye makeup? They put makeup on their eyebrows, they put makeup on their eyes, use mascara, and basically, what’s really going on here is eye makeup is designed to make women’s eyes look bigger. Why should women want to make their eyes look bigger? Why is that more attractive to men? The theory is that bigger eyes are actually linked to a baby face look, because babies have very big eyes in relationship with the rest of their heads, and we are genetically programmed to find babies inherently things that we are drawn to, are attractive, that we want to cuddle and hold. If babies weren’t genetically designed that way, they’d get abandoned and the species wouldn’t last very long. So women, in making their eyes bigger, are using, at an unconscious level, quite a powerful evolutionary psychological technique in making their eyes look bigger to actually draw men in.

Two psychologists, Terry Pettijohn and Abraham Tesser, added a novel twist to this idea. They looked at ratings of which American actresses were found to be more popular, and they used popularity in terms of ratings by the American public as a proxy measure for attraction, and they looked at the ratings for the top five most attractive American actresses from Hollywood over the last 40 or 50 years, way back from the 1930s up until the 1990s. They correlated the facial appearance of these women in terms of whether they were baby faced in appearance, i.e. have a big eyes look, and other features as well, or were less baby faced in appearance. They linked that to the economic cycle the country was going through at the time, and they came up with a really interesting finding, which is that baby faced American actresses were most popular at times of a boom. The theory here is this: that a baby faced looking woman, who looks a bit like a baby, also looks like someone who might need a lot of looking after - it’s someone who’s looking rather dependent perhaps and, attractive though she may be, it could be that men are more attracted to the baby faced looking woman at a boom time because they feel able to look after a dependent looking woman. Women who were looking less baby faced were rated as more attractive and more popular at a time of economic recession. In other words, when men are feeling there’s not much money in their wallets, may be they are more interested in a woman who looks like she can look after herself. The key point here is that it’s the context that matters when we are thinking about attraction. That is a question that people don’t often ask themselves. They often think what is a seduction technique, what is found attractive by the opposite sex, and that’s the wrong question to ask. The correct question is in what context are certain things found attractive.

Just to give you another example of that, people have looked at pictures of faces, and they have used computer morphing technology, so that a woman is looking at a male face, but the psychologist has secretly basically taken her face and altered it using computer morphing technology so it looks like a man, but she doesn’t know that actually she’s looking at the male version of her own face, and the same the other way round. The evidence is that the more facially similar another face of the opposite sex is, the more likely you are to be attracted to it. One of the theories going on here is a theory called implicit egotism. Implicit egotism is about the idea that the face that you’re most attracted to is likely to be one very similar to your own structurally for all sorts of reasons, but often because you feel most warmly disposed towards things that are most similar to yourself. Another theory is about the idea that the face you spend most time looking at is the one in the mirror in the morning, in the bathroom, and therefore you are more drawn to that face because that is the face that with which you feel most familiar.

This implicit egotism theory has some really quite fascinating and often unconscious effects. A famous experiment was done where people are told about the story of Rasputin, the mad monk of Russia, and they are given his biography, and they are asked to evaluate what they think of Rasputin. In one condition, they are led to believe that his birth date is the same as their own. Low and behold, if you think Rasputin shares your birth date, you tend to be less negative about Rasputin when you are evaluating him! In other words, implicit egotism is in action. Anything that is a little bit like you, you think cannot be too bad because it’s a bit like me. Implicit egotism also works when psychologists have found that people are much more likely, statistically significantly, to end up being married to other people whose surnames start with the first same letter as their own surname. Again, the idea being that you are used to your own initials, you are rather attracted to them because you link them to yourself, and therefore people with those surnames you are more drawn to as well. This implicit egotism idea is very interesting.

When they set up situations where you are under more stress, for example, you are asked to rate your worst features, and then they ask you to think about which dates you might like to meet, under stress, you tend to retreat into much more implicit egotism. You tend to go much more for the familiar and the safe and people who are a bit like you. So if you notice someone looks a bit facially like you, then you should stress them out before making your approach, is the theory!

I just want to talk briefly about some of the latest findings on the psychology of attraction. I wonder whether in the modern era, because we lead busy lives, we don’t have a chance to meet people very often, we have a short time in which to make an impact, in which to seduce people hence, it’s really a signifier of the kind of times we live in. If you think about speed dating, you’ve got three minutes in which to make an impact. Under these conditions, then attraction tends to have a high value, because it has to operate quickly. You’ve got to move in for the kill rapidly. You’ve got to pull quickly in the kind of fast paced society we live in, compared to 150 years ago, when you didn’t have to worry that much about attraction because you spent years with a small group of members of the opposite sex that you might end up being married to.

I wonder whether attraction is rather over-rated in a sense. A lot of the times people come to see me in a clinic is because they ended up in an unhappy marriage. They don’t debate the fact they were very attracted initially to the member of the opposite sex they’ve ended up with, but now, for some reason, things aren’t working so well. In a way, what’s happened is our society has placed too much weight on attraction and too little weight on something else which I think is actually much more important. I like to call that thing compatibility.

The best way of thinking about compatibility is to think about its opposite, which is incompatibility. Incompatibilities are basically the things that you couldn’t live with in another person no matter what the compensations. So imagine a billionaire George Clooney – what couldn’t you live with if he had these features? Ninety-nine per cent of divorce is about people being very attracted to someone who had at least one top five incompatibility, and what these people thought was, you know what, I’m really attracted to this person, I’m sure the attraction will overcome the incompatibility, but actually, it’s always the way, it’s like a law of human psychology, the incompatibility always overcomes the attraction.

A lot of people come to me and they say, “Dr Persaud, I’ve met someone I’m very attracted to. How do I know if they are Mr Right?” I think they’re asking the wrong question. You can’t ever know for certain as you walk up the wedding aisle that you’ve met Mr Right. What you can know for certain is that you’ve met Mr Wrong. That’s one thing you can know for certain, and you can know that for certain because if they’ve got one of the top five or top ten incompatibilities on your list, then they are definitely Mr Wrong. So the question you need to ask yourself when you meet someone that you’re very drawn to is not how attracted you are to them, but have they got a top five or top ten incompatibility. People often say, “Well you know, Raj, when you say that, it seems a rather unromantic way of thinking about relationships.” It is an unromantic way of thinking about relationships, but it is a way that guarantees that relationships are much more likely to last longer. So I think we need to focus much more on what we can’t live with, and that also means knowing yourself, because you need to know what you can’t live with in order to pick the right person. So people often say to me, “How do I know I’ve met the right person?” One of the problems with seduction, if you think about the Bill Murray route to seduction, is when we meet someone, we want them to like us, so we take them on nice relaxing dates, we’re very warm to them, very positive, we tell them we’ve studied 19th Century French poetry at university, and so we present a series of very pleasant positive experiences. That’s not the way to know whether you’ve met the right person. The way to know you’ve met the right person is when you have a crisis, when things aren’t going well. That’s when you know you’ve met the right person. Often, you only hit your first crisis five years into the relationship after you’ve got married, and then you discover, in the midst of a crisis, actually this person isn’t supportive or there to stand by when things get tough.

So I want to conclude with two key ideas. One is you’ll know you’ve met the right person after you’ve had your first crisis together. People often say to me, “But we haven’t had a crisis!” I always say, “Well, generate one, and then you’ll know!” But one final point I want to leave you with is that we think about seduction and about trying to seduce people, but we think about that in the narrow arena of attraction. Actually, in life, you’ve got to seduce your boss, you have to seduce your workmates, you’ve got to seduce your friends, because seducing people is about getting people to be attracted to you in general, not just in the narrow romantic or sexual sense, and that is the way that we accomplish our social goals. Seduction is a key part of life, and often people take seduction very, very seriously. We saw Bill Murray was giving a lot of energy and effort to it. But one useful thing to think about is seduction should also be fun! There is a sense in which the most attractive thing about other people is if their lives appear to be fun. If they are having fun, we think that if we connect with them, we’re also going to start having fun. So instead of trying to findthe right person, let me just urge instead, try to be the right person. By being the right person and focusing on being the right person, then the right person will come along naturally and be drawn to you.

So I want to conclude with the best chat up line I’ve ever heard, not because as a married man I’m collecting them or anything, but the best chat up line I think is, “Are you having fun?” because whatever way the answer goes, you may be able to do something about that, but it places fun at the heart of what life is about, and life is a seduction.


© Professor Raj Persaud, Gresham College, 9 November 2005


This event was on Wed, 09 Nov 2005


Dr Raj Persaud

Visiting Professor of Psychiatry

Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist. Unusually for a psychiatrist he also holds a degree in psychology that he obtained with First Class Honours, and...

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