The Psychology of Interpersonal Attraction

The term "attraction" concerns phenomenon that vary from affiliation (making "online friends") through romance (online filtration and courtship), either of which may escalate into an offline relationship, or may remain a purely online one.

The degree to which a person values online relationships, specifically as to whether they value their online acquaintances as much as meatspace ones, is highly subjective.


A survey (Parks and Floyd, 1996) indicated that fully two-thirds of newsgroup posters had formed one or more relationships with individual they met online. Opposite-sex relationships are slightly more common than same-sex, but only a small percentage were characterized as "romantic attachments."

Although women are less numerous than men, they are more likely to claim to have formed an "online relationship," though it is suspected that this is because they are in the minority and are more commonly approached by the men who are more prevalent in the population.

Also, those who have e more experience in using the Internet, both in terms of the length of time they have been online and in the amount of time they spend online, are more likely to have formed online relationships than less experienced or less frequent users.

As to the number of relationships, there was a direct correlation between a subject's offline and online behaviors - specifically, those with many friends in real life have many friends on the internet as well.

The same survey inquired into the breadth and depth of relationships, and concluded that they run the gamut, from intense and lasting to casual and brief encounters. However, no comparison is drawn to offline relationships.

One analogy is that people have multiple "circles" of friends in meatspace, and the one or more circles of friends they have online are generally analogous. However, there is less overlap between online and offline circles (and even online circles to one another) than exists in offline circles.


Physical attraction plays a major role in the formation of meatspace relationships: those who are physically attractive are considered at a glance to be more likable and more approachable.

Even in the absence of actual meat, attractiveness plays a role. The author cites a study (Snynder 1977) in which subjects were presented a photograph of a person to whom they spoke over an intercom system. When the photograph was of an attractive person, their reaction was more favorable.

In the absence of photographs, people's "attractiveness" is assessed on less tangible aspects: the way in which they express themselves in writing. Anecdotal evidence is presented that suggests that unattractive people notice that they are more readily accepted online than in meatspace.


In meatspace, relationships are formed with people to whom we are physically proximate - neighbors, coworkers, people who go to the same recreational facilities or religious services, etc. Simply stated: one can only form a relationship with someone one has met.

More to the point, seeing a person regularly, itself, makes one more inclined to like them - as a familiar face is more appealing than a strange one, even if "familiarity" is very superficial (see Zajonc, 1980).

It is reasoned that proximity promotes attraction because the two parties anticipate future interaction, and behave in a manner that makes them more amenable to one another. Walther (1994) underscores this: in an experiment, it was demonstrated that individuals acted in a more friendly manner toward those with whom they anticipated having future contact.


The phenomenon of "intersection frequency" is more measurable online: the times in which two people participate in a single forum, or the times they meet with one another in different forums, builds familiarity.

Therefore people who work in the same industry, have the same hobbies and interests, and have other factors in common will end up visiting the same sites and participating in the same forums, which increases intersection frequency and makes it more likely they will develop an online relationship.

However, it is noted that participation must be active - people who are "lurkers" in the same forums do not develop similar levels of familiarity.

There is also the matter of shared attitudes. If two individuals are regularly on the opposite sides of an issue, they may develop familiarity, but may not forge a sense of friendship. It's not that they must agree on every issue, but the proportion of shared attitudes has a correlation to the likelihood of personal affinity.

Whereas commonalities can bring people together, the relationship is later strengthened or weakened as they discover additional information about one another that makes them more or less compatible. This, however, is not unique to online relationships, though it tends to happen over a more protracted time span.

There is also a spiral of affection: when someone likes us, our liking of them grows stronger; they sense our affection from them, and show more affection in return; and so on. The same effect can also amplify dislike.

The cues for affinity on the Internet are different: responding to a person in a group discussion, agreeing with them, supporting their point, and referencing them by name can all be cues to affinity.


Humor, as an attractant, can be effective provided that it is either victimless or self-deprecating. To ridicule other people is seen as aggressive, hence unattractive, behavior.

In the online medium, humor is very powerful - though the limited number of cues available to clarify humorous intent (especially when a statement, taken literally, may seem offensive) mean that it can often backfire.


Self-disclosure is a critical element of intimacy - it involves confession of information about yourself to others, and generally relies on reciprocity (confidences are given, and received) to deepen the exchange of information, hence the closeness of the relationship.

In many cases, people assess the strength of a friendship by their ability to confide in the other party - a person to whom you could "tell anything" is a closer friend than one whom you are reluctant to share information with.

As with humor, it's a delicate matter: how a person reacts to the information you provide to them, and vice versa, provides cues to the reciprocal nature of the relationship, and breaches of confidence can put an end to a relationship.

With the distance and anonymity of the internet, there is a tendency for individuals to become "hype-personal," sharing too much information, too soon, and perhaps information it is not entirely discreet to share.

Ironically, the details that would associate your online persona with your real-life identity are generally considered to be sacrosanct - people will tell a lot of very personal information about themselves, but will be reluctant to give away their name, address, or phone number.


The phenomenon of cybersex is considered to be widespread, but is not widely understood. As with the sharing of hyper-personal information, it is expected that the physical distance and anonymity of the Internet makes individuals more inclined to engage in role-play of a frank and explicit nature.

The translation of this online activity to offline (meeting in real life for sexual encounters) is extremely rare, and the ability to sustain online passion in the real world even more rare. Though Internet marriages no longer make headline news, neither are they a regular phenomenon.

Most interviewees never have any intention of meeting an online partner, but see the Internet as a safe place to explore fantasy and engage in role-play from a safe distance.