Human beings possess an innate need to form relationships and belong to groups(1). When social bonds are broken, especially in cases of social exclusion and rejection, there can be significant psychological consequences (e.g. depression and anxiety). As such, there exists a strong motivation for most of us to form connections with other people -- whether it be a friend, an acquaintance or a spouse.
To increase the odds of entering into relationships with other people, we need to be aware of how likeable we are. Having traits and qualities that are appealing to others is important.
However, people are not always aware of which qualities are most important for being a likeable person. As a psychologist, I am often witness to an interesting phenomenon -- whenever I ask my clients which qualities are most important in terms of their own likeability, they tend to list things like physical attractiveness, wealth, and social status. However, when I then ask these same clients to list the qualities they desire most in other people, they list things like honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty, and kindness.
I suspect that their contradictory responses reflect the influence of popular culture. While their past experience has taught them the importance of things like trustworthiness and loyalty in relationships, they are also quite aware that the most popular and celebrated people in our society tend to be those who possess what can be described as more superficial attributes.
So, which qualities are most important for likeability -- those associated with a "good personality" or those that are more superficial?
Research on likeability dates back to the 1960s, when psychologist Norman Anderson had research subjects rate 555 adjectives in terms of how much each adjective would make another person likeable.
Results from this study showed that the most likeable qualities were sincerity, honesty, the capacity for understanding, loyalty, and trustworthiness. Intelligence and humour were both highly rated as well, whereas being popular was much farther down the list.
Recent research has examined likeability in more specific contexts. This research is important because the qualities that make you likeable as a dating partner are perhaps different from those that make you a good friend.
For example, in 2002(2) psychologists wanted to know which qualities were most desired in five different types of relationships:
- Same-sex friends
- Opposite-sex friends
- Dating partners
- Marriage partners
- Casual sex partners
Research participants were asked to rate 16 attributes (ex: ambition; intelligence) in terms of how much they preferred that attribute in a given relationship.
The results were very interesting. For all five of the relationship types, the top three qualities were always the same (albeit in different order): warmth and kindness, expressiveness and openness, and sense of humour.
For most of the relationships, qualities like physical attractiveness, money/ earning potential, and social status were rated lower in importance (often 8th or lower).
In 2007(3), psychologists conducted a series of studies examining the attributes that were the most preferred in a general sense (i.e., what qualities would the ideal person have) and in very specific relationships (e.g. a close friend, fraternity member, being on the same golf team).
These researchers found that generally speaking, trustworthiness, cooperativeness, and agreeableness were found to be much more important for likeability than physical attractiveness. This trend tended to hold true across many of the specific relationships as well.
For example, the qualities most desired in a close friend were trustworthiness, cooperativeness, agreeableness, and extraversion. Among the least desired qualities in a close friend were physical attractiveness, social status and wealth.
In general, research on likeability has found that "good personality" attributes like trustworthiness, honesty, warmth and kindness are very important, and that extraversion, intelligence and sense of humour also seem to carry significant weight.
Although physical attractiveness, wealth and social status tend not to be as highly rated as these "good personality" traits, this does not mean they are unimportant. In fact, when you look at the actual ratings typically given to these more superficial characteristics, it is clear that people do consider them to be important -- just not as important.
The superficial qualities are perhaps best considered to be luxury items -- they help you to be more likeable, but one can certainly be liked without them.
1 Baumeister & Leary. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
2 Sprecher & Regan (2002). Liking some things (in some people) more than others: Partner preferences in romantic relationships and friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 19, 463-481.
3. Cottrell, Neuberg, & Li (2007). What do people desire in others? A sociotunctional perspective on the importance of different valued characteristics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 208-231.