The Psychology of Attraction and Its Influence on Branding and Advertising

Whether it’s judging a company by its CEO or judging a brand by its choice of an advertising model, the psychology of attraction influences our consumer behavior more than we think. 

Whether it’s judging a company by its CEO or judging a brand by its choice of an advertising model, the psychology of attraction influences our consumer behavior more than we think.

In Titanic, their hearts went on, but Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) was left behind. Perhaps there was enough space on Rose’s life-saving raft, but that would’ve surely made for a completely different movie.

By Matt Johnson, Phd., and Prince Ghuman

We enjoy thinking of romantic feelings as spontaneous, Shakespearian, and straight from our hearts. But in reality, things are not nearly so poetic—our brain runs a complex series of processes to determine our sense of attraction, which influence the things we do for the person we feel attracted to.

Our fascination with attraction is nothing new though. From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, to Game of Thrones‘ John Snow and Ygritte, most good stories we know of feature at least one romantic tragedy. Why? Because our most impressive mental abilities have to do with other people.

In short, we’re fascinated by other people. And attraction is “chemistry” that motivates us to be with someone else. But, as you’ll soon learn, there are pitfalls to attraction. For now, let’s take a look at the psychological makeup of attraction.

The Psychology of Attraction

We know that we’re attracted to someone when our heart rate soars, our hands start to feel sweaty, and our mouth becomes dry. These physiological reactions to attraction are commonplace. But it turns out that too much coffee can arouse us the same way.

Our body has only one system for arousal, which can be set off by many things other than attraction. Other triggers could be anger, fear, and also excitement. Research suggests that when we’re aroused, we often can’t correctly pinpoint what the source of this arousal is coming from—are we attracted? Are we fearful? Excited? Angry? Or… did we simply have had too much coffee this morning?

This phenomenon is known as the misattribution of arousal. It is of fundamental importance as it’s based on one of our natural desires: sex. It explains how we can make a mistake in assuming what turns us on and what makes us feel aroused. So inviting your date for a coffee first, watching an exciting movie, or going on a trip to the theme park could undoubtedly make you appear more “attractive.” This phenomenon has been proven all over. Let’s point to the bridge study, for example.

In this classic bridge study, researchers had male participants cross either a fear-inducing, suspension bridge or a sturdy bridge. At the end of crossing either bridge, they were stopped by a female experimenter who asked the men to compose a short story based on an image. She gave all of them her phone number in case they had any more questions about the experiment—unaware of the true nature of the study.

Turns out, the same woman is perceived more attractive when meeting on the fear-inducing, suspension bridge. This was interpreted by the result of the study: more males from the suspension bridge called the female experimenter back, believing feelings of sexual arousal at the sight of the female rather than the physiological arousal (anxiety) from walking across the suspension bridge.

Other sources of arousal affect attraction, no matter the source of it. Once we think that someone is attractive, we also tend to ascribe more positive attributes to that person, which means we believe an attractive person is generally smarter, more ambitious, and more moral. When we assume that positive attributes coalesce, enter what psychologists call the Halo Effect.

This effect is so potent that “attractive” criminals are generally given a more lenient jail sentence in comparison to their “unattractive” counterparts. All because an attractive person is “just not the type” to be a criminal.

But it’s not only the judicial system that’s impacted by attraction. It also plays a significant role in our consumer behavior. So let’s look at the effect attraction has on our wallets.

How Attraction Dictates Consumer Behavior

Attraction dictates our responses so much that it can even be profitable for a company to hire an attractive CEO. No joke. A recent research paper found that when a company appoints an attractive CEO, its shares tend to climb shortly after the announcement. And when a good-looking boss appears on TV, the stock price similarly gets a little boost. It, quite literally, pays to be good-looking!

There have also been plenty of other studies to showcase the additional advantages of being attractive: attractive people tend to win more often in political campaigns, make more money, and get better deals for the companies they work for.

What attractive CEOs can do to their company’s stock value, attractive models can do for a company’s perceived product value.

The rationale for the marketing tactic is self-evident: by pairing an attractive model with a product, hopefully, people will think that the product is attractive too.

Though it’s often a taboo subject, advertisers use attractive models to draw our attention. Brands such as Victoria Secret and Axe capitalize on this by creating ads that, at times, don’t even feature the product, but are merely designed to attract our attention that’s hungry for arousal. And in sales, gaining attention is often half the battle.

Advertisers use many methods to incorporate attraction. If we look at Old Spice and Axe, according to their ads, both products are supposedly making men more desirable. Within perfume ads, only the most attractive women wear the perfume, implicating that we will also become beautiful by wearing it.

Here lies the beautiful bliss point between misattribution of arousal and the Halo Effect: They both work—even without a product. We’re confused about the source of the arousal (enter misattribution of arousal), and we also lump everything positive together (enter Halo Effect).

Our brand impressions are also inherently influenced by the types of imagery used in ads. Arguably, Calvin Klein isn’t much different from brands such as Hanes, but perception studies show that because of their brand persona, Calvin Klein is perceived as “sexy,” whereas Hanes isn’t.

Whether it’s judging a company by its CEO or judging a brand by its choice of an advertising model, the psychology of attraction influences our consumer behavior more than we think.

Our desire for arousal isn’t going anywhere in the near future. While it may be the attraction, a cup of coffee, or re-watching the scene of Titanic when Jack gives up his space to Rose, now we know the psychological gymnastics behind arousal in the brain.

Johnson and Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses” and co-author of “Blindsight – The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains”.  You can check out more of their writing here.

This article originally appeared in PopNeuro. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.

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