Why do you keep dating douchebags? How come you can’t you get over your ex? Why do some relationship feel effortless, while others force us to try very hard? The answer to all of these questions lies in understanding attraction.
I’m not talking about sexual attraction, although what I’ll share will, to some extent, explain that too. I mean attraction as in: “Oh, I like that guy!” The kind of attraction that’s natural, effortless, and that you might feel towards a great deal of people, even if you don’t have any agenda involving them whatsoever.
It’s a good thing, this attraction. It allows humans to get along, which, in a world this crowded, becomes more important by the day. When you easily hit it off with others, you can seamlessly navigate thousands of relationships, no matter how microscopic their role in your life may be. Which do you prefer? A queue at the bakery in which everyone gives each other the death stare, or one with light banter and the occasional, “No way, I always go for the chocolate-frosted ones too!”?
As we shall discover, this last bit of “me too” is a key element of attraction: Likeness breeds liking. I mean, it’s in the word, isn’t it? “Josh likes Trina” indicates that, in one way or another, Josh and Trina are alike. This phenomenon is so universal, it lets Seth Godin explain marketing in a single sentence: “People like us do things like this.” For now, let’s remember that since likeness is easy to find, so is attraction — and that turns our superficial chemistry into a double-edged sword.
If you quickly relate to others, beyond forging genuine friendships, you’ll also connect with many people that, ultimately, don’t belong into your life. Sometimes, that connection extends far beyond a brief encounter at the bakery, and that’s when things get complicated: A shared love for jello shots becomes a six-month stint of endless arguments. A brutal assignment survived together makes you cannon-fodder for your coworker’s quest to get promoted. That’s attraction leading us astray, and the consequences hurt.
While it won’t prevent you from ever falling for the wrong person again, understanding why attraction forms is the first step towards getting better at knowing when to trust your attraction and when to double-check your gut.
“Knowing” is the key word here. That’s where the answer to the seemingly simple yet surprisingly complex question of “Why are we attracted to people like us?” begins. Given humans have been trying to understand each other since the dawn of time, it might come as a little less of a surprise that that answer can be found in a 2,000-year-old book.
The Grandest Sport of All
“All human beings by nature desire knowledge.” Thus goes the opening line of Metaphysics, the 14-volume magnum opus on philosophy by none other than Aristotle, one of the fathers of philosophy itself. With the hindsight of history, we might call Aristotle a genius, and, looking at his dozen other “father of…” titles, it seems that we have. If you had asked him back then, I’m sure he would have said some variation of what Einstein echoed 1900 years later: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
The premise of natural curiosity will be integral to our theory, so let’s state it clearly and then probe it for truth: You are curious. All of us are.
We may forget it from time to time, but if we think back to our childhood, it’s easy to realize curiosity drove virtually every step of our growing up. As a baby, you grabbed everything, licked everything, and constantly looked around in awe. Once you were able to crawl, you crawled wherever you could go, and you only went further once you were on your feet.
This is Aristotle’s first piece of evidence that to be human is to be curios: We love using our senses. We enjoy garnering data about the world, be it through our noses, mouths, ears, eyes, or hands. Do you ever stop and smell the roses? Your coffee? Your lunch? What about vibing to a new song? How about watching the sunset? Clearly, our senses can be the source of great pleasure.
When it comes to using our senses ferociously, we’re no different from any other animal. Many smart creatures, like dogs, crows, dolphins, elephants, and others, can even form habits from experience. That, too, is something we learn early on. “If I touch the stove, I’ll get hurt, so I’ll touch the stove no more.” Simple if-then-loops, however, are where our similarities end.
Once we hit preschool, our human uniqueness fully blooms: Unlike any animal, we can understand why the world works the way it does. We can see why certain actions in certain situations are the right or wrong ones to take, and we can do so even before we take them, before we’re forced to learn from experience.
If you’ve ever solved a crossword, fixed a home appliance, or figured out the right technique for your favorite sport, you know how satisfying it is to successfully employ your capacity for logic and reason. In fact, it is so satisfying, Aristotle claims, that most of human culture and civilization is based on our singular, omniscient desire for knowledge.
That’s his second piece of evidence: If we weren’t relentlessly curious, would we ever have ventured this far beyond mere survival? Why study nature? Why make art? What about science, religion, and philosophy? What about Formula 1, Microsoft, and the Taj Mahal? A simpler animal would have been content to eat, sleep, breed, repeat — but not us. Therefore, we must be curious.
We have turned knowledge into the grandest sport of all, and every human loves to play.
A 21st Century Psychologist — in 345 BC
The English language contains 171,476 words, of which we use about 3,000 to handle our everyday reading and interactions. Some might call this efficient. I call it a shame, because for many a word we don’t know, we use five more to describe what we mean. That’s everything but efficient.
While the precision of language always depends on the eloquence of its wielder, at anywhere from 1.6 to 6 million words, Greek suffers no lack of specificity — and the deeper you dig, the more vocabulary you’ll find that you wish you had at hand. One such word is tekhnê (pronounced “tech-knee”), a word Aristotle used to establish a hierarchy of competitors in the game of knowledge.
Tekhnê combines what we today call “skill” or “technique” with “art” or “craft.” It describes both the task itself as well as the understanding and craftsmanship one might attain from (or in order to) perform said task well. Cooking is a tekhnê. Studying recipes builds tekhnê. And a master chef likely has lots of tekhnê.
The core element of tekhnê is understanding. Can the task be explained in an intelligible way? Does it have its own rationale? What about the actor? Does she know why she’s doing what she’s doing? Or is she guided purely by instinct? Without understanding, there can be no tekhnê — not that that necessarily hurts the result. Even if the painter works in trance, the painting can still be beautiful.
In German, there’s a word called “Technik,” and it gets close to tekhnê. You might watch a documentary about “die Technik des Stoffewebens,” the craft of weaving fabrics, which explains the general process of weaving by hand or via loom. At the same time, you might commend your friend’s “Technik beim Tennis,” his technique in swinging his racket while hitting yellow balls.
Today all roads might lead to Rome, but in Aristotle’s world, all tekhnê leads to pleasure. After all, understanding satisfies our curiosity, and employing said understanding to make something engages our senses on top.
Here’s an example: While spending two years on the island of Lesbos around 345 BC, Aristotle extensively thought, researched, and wrote about animals. Among the many creatures he observed was the paper nautilus, a species related to the octopus. Aristotle noted that one of the male nautilus’ tentacles looked different than the others and, seeing how he inserted it into the female during courtship, concluded it must be the animal’s reproductive organ.
Aristotle had no way of verifying his theory as correct (it was, but we only confirmed that in the 19th century), but exercising his mind and senses provided him with a rewarding feeling. That, too, is tekhnê. If somebody had drawn an accurate representation of the nautilus for Aristotle, the artist would have enjoyed the drawing as much as Aristotle enjoyed analyzing the subject — at least he suggests as much in Parts of Animals. Finally, if a skilled art critic would have looked at said drawing, they, too, would have found joy in judging the artist’s skills.
The lesson here is that expertise is fun — both building it and using it once you have it. This is astonishingly congruent with 21st century psychology. It’s in line with Daniel Pink’s Drive, Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and dozens of studies on passion, grit, and deliberate practice, all of which come to the same conclusion: The better you become at something, the more fun you’ll have doing it. Obvious? Today, maybe. Yet, given we still so often fail to act on this knowledge, I think someone discovering this on a small island some 2,300 years ago is pretty impressive.
Well, okay, so much for the experts — the biologist, the painter, and the art critic — but what about the average Joe? Where are our rungs on the ladder of knowledge? Fret not, for there is another way to quench our curiosity, and it does not require tekhnê of any kind. In fact, it is accessible to all. The only demands it makes are the right vocabulary and, in the case of looking at Aristotle’s imagined octopus drawing, the realization that, “Yes! This is an octopus!”
The Second Time You Saw a Tree
If it takes an expert to appreciate the craft, how come even an amateur can enjoy watching one in action? What does the casual football fan get out of observing a great pass, and why can a child in the backseat gaze at passing cars for hours, content in silent wonder?
The answer, according to Aristotle, is mimêsis — another one of many Greek words worth adding to your roster. In Poetics, the book that shall answer our questions about dating and relationships, translator Malcolm Heath considers mimêsis a broadly defined version of the word “imitation.”
Unlike the imitation we know, mimêsis need not be literal. While it always indicates likeness, “an imitation need not be a straightforward copy of the object imitated.” A heavy metal song in which the singer screams can easily be linked to being angry, even if the lyrics never directly discuss the emotion. Furthermore, mimêsis is not limited to reality. To Aristotle, a play about a vengeful god starting a heavy metal band could be just as good as one about a vindictive carpenter doing the same. Finally, he saw mimêsis as an elemental human activity, one that pervades all the arts and many other, seemingly non-artistic activities, like making animal sounds or children playing house.
Aristotle’s contention, then, is that human beings are by nature prone to engage in the creation of likenesses, and to respond to likenesses with pleasure, and he explains this instinct by reference to their innate desire for knowledge. A likeness is (by definition) a likeness of something; to take part in the activity of making and responding to likenesses we must recognize the relationship between the likeness and its object. This engages and satisfies the desire to exercise our distinctively human power of understanding, and is therefore pleasurable. This exercise of our capacity for understanding is, to be sure, a rudimentary one. But Aristotle’s purpose here is to explain how poetry and painting are rooted in basic instincts shared by even the least intellectually sophisticated people.
The first time you saw a tree, you may have wondered what it was. The first time you saw a tree after your mom had pointed one out to you in a picture book, your eyes lit up. “A tree! It’s a tree! Mom, it’s a tree!” The key element here is recognition. You recognize the tree because you’ve seen one before. You understand there is a connection between the two, and understanding is what you were born to do — it’s what makes you human and uniquely so.
As a side note, this also explains taste and how it can be so subjective: Since everyone has different experiences, we don’t all recognize and connect the same things. If you’ve never seen a zeppelin nor know how rare they are, you might not care when one pops up in the sky — or even think it’ll usher in the apocalypse. Meanwhile, if you had lots of posters of red cars around the house while growing up, you’ll probably want your car to be red. The endless variety of mimêsis in our individual lives ensures: Not everyone likes what you like, but everyone likes something.
Returning to our little tree enthusiast, I’ll grant that the thrill of point-and-name soon wears off, but if you bring a little patience to the park, you can still summon that same spirit of awe and excitement decades later. Just sit on a bench and watch the willow for a while. You enjoy looking at it, don’t you? After all, you recognize it. The willow is familiar. At the same time, there are a million things you don’t know about it, and those are equally intriguing.
It’s fascinating how quickly fascination forms — and nowhere is this interplay of recognition and inquisitiveness stronger than in human relationships.
How Curiosity-Fueled Attraction Can Lead Us Astray
Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far:
- Humans have an undying, irrefutable desire for knowledge.
- One way of consistently fueling said desire is to become an expert in something and then rigorously exercise your expertise.
- Another, more rudimentary approach is to engage in imitation, and the most basic version of that is to simply recognize how two things are alike.
Once you put together curiosity, understanding, and likeness, you have everything you need to explain the magnetic pull of human relationships: Recognizing likeness feeds understanding, and understanding satisfies curiosity. That’s why attraction often feels effortless: Every time you discover another likeness-nugget, you get a little hit of dopamine. The more you realize you and your coffee date are alike, the happier you’ll be in their presence. Your understanding barometer goes through the roof, and since nothing feels better than “getting it,” you’ll soon be on cloud nine.
You’re using your senses to scan for likeness. Is her hair the same color as your celebrity crush’s? Does he have freckles like you? Your similarities-monitor is on. “Oh, I know that keychain!” “That sounds like the time I was in a band.” Your imagination is blossoming. “Where does her ambition come from?” “Was he cheated on as well?”
Now that’s great when you’re sitting across the love of your life, and it can make waiting at the DMV less boring, but, unfortunately, this process does not only work well when it’s supposed to. Your brain is so desperate for mental check marks, it’ll sometimes construe the flimsiest relation as a profound, shared connection — and that’s where the trouble begins.
“Oh, he loves Italy. I love Italy!” This implies a shared understanding of what “Italy” means to each of you — which, actually, may or may not be there. If your date associates “Italy” solely with translating Italian poetry from the 15th century into English because that’s what he spent half a year doing somewhere in rural Canada, that’s very different from you thinking about the pizza, ice cream, and beautiful palazzos you indulged in on your last vacation.
Your brain, however, rarely bothers verifying. Relying on its memory of other, equally shaky connections, it concludes there’s a decent chance your ideas of “Italy” overlap enough to warrant being excited — and up the dopamine hatches go. Even if your brain didn’t constantly jump to conclusions, you could still get away on a single, shared opinion about Italy. “The Italian language is beautiful” might be enough to get both of you to date number two. That’s how strong the pull of understanding others is. It’s the curiosity game on steroids — and that snowball will gladly roll downhill if we let it.
This also explains why, especially in unfamiliar settings, people tend to huddle together in ethnic groups. When I studied abroad, it took all of one day for all nine Germans to find each other and spend the evening in the same room. For better or for worse, likeness feels good and safe, so why not go where you know some likeness will be guaranteed? This is a trap, of course. In my case, it led to a lack of new ideas and perspectives — you know, the thing a college exchange is for. In others, it could lead to racism, bullying, and worse.
The Slow-Burn Movie of Real Understanding
Going back to the dating game, our likeness addiction makes it easy to jump from similarity to similarity — and thus fall in love head over heels. But the question is not how many corresponding easter eggs you can find — it is whether you’re compatible in a few key aspects that matter.
If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, the three big Ws are a good place to start: What, where, and who? What do you want your daily routines to look like? How does work fit into living together? Where will you do said shared living, and who will you want close by? More than one divorce has been filed over living down the street from one’s in-laws.
The truth is if you can deflect the big bullets, your differences are a matter of management, not elimination. That’s what rooms in houses are for. You do your thing, I do mine, and we’ll reconvene at dinner. Discovering how we are different can be just as satisfying as finding out we’re alike. Unlike the latter, however, the former is not a fast, dopamine-fueled carousel. It’s more like a slow-burn movie, the fruits of which we can only reap in time.
My girlfriend loves refunds. If there’s a damaged item to return, a hotel room sub-par, or a voucher that’s not being honored, she is your gal. I’m more timid. “Diplomatic,” I call it. On a bad day, I might perceive this difference as friction. “Why can’t she just let it go?” On a good day, however, I see this difference as strength. I can count on her playing bad cop at the front desk, and I’ll play good cop to go along. Together, we’ll deliver a convincing performance that gets us what we’re owed — and we have. Situations like these have happened, and they’ll keep happening in the future. So why not combine our talents?
The kind of understanding this cooperation requires does not come with a jolt of energy that feels like caffeine hitting the veins. Instead, it triggers a slow, long “aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh, that’s why she is like that.” My girlfriend grew up in a country where consumer rights don’t exist. Imagine living in a place where, in every economic transaction, you can expect to be ripped off, and the only question is how much. If you moved to a country where your purchases are protected by the law, wouldn’t you invoke the 30-day-guarantee? I would.
It’s a bit like mimêsis vs. tekhnê: Anyone can giggle over realizing they went to the same school, but the joy of being an expert on why your partner is who they are is a prize few can claim.
The Good Life — A Life of Good Relationships
If we want to build great relationships, we must understand why, when, and how we connect with others. Attraction is the spark that forges these connections, and it includes everything from a smirk at the cash register to a full-blown addiction to the devil in disguise.
While some baseline of attraction allows us to glide through society’s waters, too much of it too quickly can cause us great pain and misery. Once we know how the process of attraction unfolds, however, we are better able to pause, speed up, slow down, or even reverse it.
Let’s summarize the tenets of attraction we’ve discovered:
- One of our strongest, most fundamental desires as humans is to learn, know, and understand.
- Any activity that engages our mental faculties with the goal of understanding is, therefore, pleasurable.
- When it comes with a continuous cycle of learning new lessons and applying them in creative endeavors, being (or becoming) an expert can steadily feed our need for intellectual stimulation.
- One of the plainest, easiest, and quickest ways to repeatedly exercise our understanding muscle, however, is to simply recognize that two things are alike. That includes realizing we are like others, and others are like us.
- When we detect many similarities with another person in quick succession, our knowledge-guzzling brain sends us into a dopamine-induced stupor of attraction — even if those similarities are built on the shakiest of foundations.
- To not get carried away and into the wrong relationships, we must fact-check our gut checks, using logic and reason to discern which correlations matter, and which ones don’t.
- Once we look past superficial tit-for-tat comparisons, we’ll not only see ourselves more clearly reflected in others, we’ll even start appreciating the beauty in our differences — and see them for the complementing strengths that they are.
One of Aristotle’s main concerns was what it means to live a good life. While the concept of virtue, which we may summarize under the maxim of “be good, do good, feel good,” remained front and center in his answer, he was acutely aware of the role our relationships play in achieving the good life ideal — his idea of true friendship being only one of his most prominent examples.
Good relationships, like anything good, take time. We can’t rush into them over fleeting experiences or same-logo sweatshirts. Until the right person appears and reveals the right level of synchronicity at the right time, be patient. Enjoy the ease of light connections, but don’t let your dopamine glands fool you. When it comes to people’s behavior, consider all reasons, yet never take the seemingly obvious ones at face value.
After all, Lowell Bennion’s 1959 imitation of Aristotle was only slightly like the latter’s original phrasing: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”