Liked For Being You

What do people want to be liked for? You are advised to tell a pretty woman she is smart and a smart woman she is pretty. But people don’t seem that happy with being liked for features like wealth, fame, beauty, strength, talent, smarts, or charisma. People do seem to prefer being liked for more stable features that they are less likely lose with time. But they still often aren’t that happy with being liked for easily visible and hence “shallow” features, relative to “deep” features that take time and attention to discover. And they sometimes say “I want to be liked just for me, not for my features.”

I’ve often puzzled over what people could mean by this; surely everything you could like about someone is a feature of some sort. And why does a feature being harder to see make it better? But I recently realized the answer is simple and even obvious: we want people to become attached to us. Attachment is a well known psychological process wherein people become bonded to particular others:

Bowlby referred to attachment bonds as a specific type of “affectional” bond. … He established five criteria for affectional bonds between individuals, and a sixth criterion for attachment bonds:

    • An affectional bond is persistent, not transitory.
    • An affectional bond involves a particular person who is not interchangeable with anyone else.
    • An affectional bond involves a relationship that is emotionally significant.
    • The individual wishes to maintain proximity or contact with the person with whom he or she has an affectional tie.
    • The individual feels sadness or distress at involuntary separation from the person.

An attachment bond has an additional criterion: the person seeks security and comfort in the relationship. (more)

Other people don’t start out with a deep preference for the exact combination of features that we embody. But if they like our shallow features they may expose themselves to us enough to see deeper features, and in the process become attached to our particular combination of all features. And it is that attachment that we really want when we say we want to be liked “for being me.”

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  • TMS71

    I think this is right on. The way I think about it is that I want someone to like me. If you think someone only likes this or that thing about you then you wonder whether they really like you. We all know what it is to like someone. Some people you know you think “I like that guy” or “I like that woman” and others you think “I don’t really like that guy” or “I don’t really like that woman”. People want to fall into the first category. Exactly what it is that puts one in that first category is hard to say. I think it may be mostly about whether that person makes you feel good about yourself.

  • Gobannian

    LOVE not me for comely grace, For my pleasing eye or face, Nor for any outward part, No, nor for a constant heart: For these may fail or turn to ill, 5 So thou and I shall sever: Keep, therefore, a true woman’s eye, And love me still but know not why— So hast thou the same reason still To doat upon me ever!

  • mk

    Yes, it’s really about the liker, not the likee — emphasis: “I want YOU to like me”.


    Yes, wanting people to care about your more hidden attributes has something to do with you wanting them to take the effort of getting to know you better (doesn’t have to be attachment but it could be) and yes people want other people who’s opinions they care about to care about attributes that are permanent.

    However there are cultural nuances here: people want to be loved for their attributes that are a) relatively permanent and b) considered virtous. What is considered virtuous is subject to cultural pressures. Spartans and Vikings did want to be liked for their strength, of course they valued intelligence as well but they valued strength just as much (perhaps they understood that being born smart is just as much a matter of luck as being born strong), in many cultures not indulging in sex outside of marriage is seen as a virtuous personality trait, in others it is seen as a sign of weakness. Each culture has a “myth of virtue” that underpins much of its philosophy and helps maintain social cohesion. Most personality attributes that are contained in that myth are things people in that culture want to be liked for. So it seems like we want to be seen conforming to the group’s standards, not really a surprising idea…

    P.S. some of these things aren’t culture-specific but rather species specific.

  • Adam

    I suspect both secular and religious narratives greatly reinforce this notion. Whole religious movements are dedicated to (or have been warped to argue for) ideals like unconditional love, loving sinners, loving thy enemy, and these are all forms of non feature-based emotional pairing(s). We seem to have evolved to carry this enormous psychological weight, this attempt to transcend our own tendency to “buy and sell” various social goods.

    • Whole religious movements are dedicated to (or have been warped to argue for) ideals like unconditional love, loving sinners, loving thy enemy

      The current status of the Middle East should serve as an example of several religions (Sunni, Shiite, Jewish) squaring off, none of which has imbibed “love thy enemy.”

      Thank “God” Obama is a Christian.

  • Wanting to be liked is largely a matter of being viewed as a desirable ally. To be loved is the opportunity to be admitted to a communal unit. These presses often work oppositely (which explains the problems in telling someone why you like her). We want to be liked for our valuable far-mode traits, but we also want to be loved for our surface characteristics—despite (or even because of) our far-mode deficiencies.

    Contrary to RH, I think that our surface traits constitute most of our “individuality.” Our deeper (far-mode characterized) traits are, due to their manner of characterization, generic.

  • Ivan

    I think it also very much depends on who is doing the liking. While complements on talent and maybe slightly more superficial features are OK from those with whom we have a superficial relationship such co-workers, acquaintances, etc. I think that for people that we are closer with, we would expect to like us for traits or combination of traits that only a long term relationship would reveal.

    I would be OK if some random people I met on the ski slope liked me for the most part for being a good skier. This would be quite problematic if that was the only reason why my spouse had any affection for me.

    It seems like your post is referring to romantic relationships and close friendships.

  • Doug

    I don’t think its that conceptually different than firms wanting customers or employees who are attracted to the firm’s brand image or working culture, rather than those who simply are looking for the cheapest product or highest paying job. Having loyal customers forms a real barrier to entry, whereas having the cheapest price usually does not.

    Similarly if our friends and spouses love us for are shallow features it makes it easier for rivals to steal them by besting us. Getting to know someone’s deep features requires a large investment of time and effort, which gives puts up barriers to entry for our personal rivals. Even if many do have better “deep features” its unlikely that our friends and spouses will expend the investment to find out. And if they do they probably will do so in at least a somewhat visible manner allowing us to invest in rehabilitating the relationship.

    • How can we tell the difference between liking you for features that take a long time to figure out and just becoming attached to the particular package of features that you are?

      • Jason Young

        i think we use surface features to “decide” whether we’ll become attached to a person’s unique set of deep features and/or attach significance to a shared history. if a person is in our ”attraction range” based on their surface feature score, getting to know them will lead to attachment with a fairly high probability, with the probability increasing as their score relative to ours increases. if they’re outside of that range, it won’t.

        there are all sorts of qualifiers, like unique events destroying or amplifying the process of attachment formation, but in general i think we precommit to the attachment process, or at least steps within it, based on surface feature assessments.

    • But it’s our shallow features, not our deep ones, that are unique–which would seem to refute your analysis. [Think fingerprints.]

      • Jason Young

        sharing rules of preference derivation does not mean we share the unique preferences those rules generate, and it is the unique preferences that facilitate the process of attachment formation. as a superficial and silly example, a pretty girl and i might both like Breaking Bad and Girls conditional on having watched them, but conversation will be a lot easier if we’ve both actually, you know, watched them.

      • sharing rules of preference derivation does not mean you share the unique preferences those rules generate

        True, it’s logically possible that we become attached to unique individuals based on a unique weighting of nomothetic traits, but it strikes me as quite farfetched. Why should we so decisively value a particular bundle of more or less equally admirable traits? I think people bond mainly on surface traits; looking for deeper affinities is largely rationalization.

  • Sophie Grouchy

    In an amusing twist of fate, I just wrote my First Blog Post Ever (not counting an unfortunate xanga journal, way back when xanga was A Thing) on being liked for you.

    • Re your post, given how little we can usually do to make ourselves look better, I don’t see why one should worry about making ourselves look so good that we attract people who only like our looks.

      • Sophie Grouchy

        At least for women, a large percentage of your attractiveness level boils down to how much time, money, and effort you put into your presentation. For men, I would guess clothing and hair make a very big (and very easy) difference.

      • IMASBA

        Weight is also something both men and women can control about their own bodies and which does make a difference in attractiveness.

      • Ronfar

        Weight is very, very hard to control. Most people who lose weight regain it within five years. The only technique that is known to be effective in achieving long-term weight loss is bariatric surgery.

      • IMASBA

        The more you want to be attractive, the easier it is to gather the willpower. It also helps to just not get fat in the first place, a feat that the majority of the world population manages to do. In any case you can do something about it if you really want to and without advanced technology or a lot of money.

      • Noumenon72

        “Willpower” is fairy dust. Or perhaps, being unattractive makes it more difficult to gather the willpower. But I can’t imagine anything people would want more than being attractive in our extremely judgmental culture, and still the weight loss odds are 20%

      • I don’t know the data, but my impression is that people do control their weight … by cycling over half-decade-long periods. (They would end up weighing more if they refrained from dieting.)

      • One would reasonably worry about small effects if–as is the case–being liked for one’s looks is intensely rewarding (so that small gains involve substantial utilities).

        [Folks like RH are misled on this point because of the phenomenon of beautiful women resenting being liked for their looks. But this merely expresses their expectation for a countersignal rather than mere signal: their looks should be so obvious a factor that they need not be mentioned.]

      • CJ

        “given how little we can usually do to make ourselves look better” Well, that’s actually pretty subjective. What might be a little difference to one person could be a major improvement in another’s eyes.
        For instance, if I shave my legs, I open up my dating opporuntities by probably something like 95% where I live. But I don’t really like shaving my legs. It’s partly the actual shaving and itchiness of stuble and all that fun stuff, but more the rule that I have to.

        To me at least, I’ve always thought that the “like me for me” thing is more about “warts and all”. Not so much about the “deeper”, slower to reveal (positive) features, but about the negative features (which are inevitably more evident the more one gets to know a person and their other “deeper” positive features).

        I could quite easily change quite a few things about my appearance and presentation which would increase the number of people who would consider me attractive… but do I want to? How much of a pay off is it? I certainly wouldn’t say being hairy is an integral part of what makes me “me”, but -even discounting the beliefs &/or personality aspects it represents to most people – it still seems like false advertising.

        How much can one change about themselves without changing “who they are”? Is conceding to change something one doesn’t want to change, in order to increase their dating prospects, just showing maturity and understanding of society works and that relationships are about give-and-take? Or is it insecurity, surrendering values (whether firm or loose), signalling acceptance of inevitable conformity and willingness to further change oneself in exchange for greater acceptance &/or affection? And is it “who one truly is” (ie. “the real me”) receiving the affection and acceptance, or is it now a character one is playing?

        And then there’s the subjectivity of which features are negative or positive or neutral…

  • Sam Dangremond

    I believe Cheap Trick did some groundbreaking research in this area…

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  • efalken

    Everyone’s got dozens of attributes that affect their attractiveness: affect, intellect, wit, status, physical appearance, humility, disagreeableness, etc. Many trade-off with each other (eg, politeness and honesty). Any handful of attributes is woefully incomplete, and so merely being high on a couple is simply not enough to be unique (eg, there are millions of men over 6 feet tall with IQs above 140).

    Many times there really isn’t a choice–my dog really likes me now, but I presume he would have really liked anyone who raised him. That’s not the point, rather, we need to matter to some. Life is finite and people aren’t that different from each other, so we find someone compatible enough with our preferences and develop a bond (if reciprocated), because friends and lovers are useful and enjoyable. The key is, the bond isn’t with my characteristics, but me, because pair bonds form on people (and pets), not abstract characteristics (eg, there’s a dopamine-mediated reward pathway for such connections)

  • Henry Alice

    Humans are singular creatures afeared of being alone. We worry of not finding someone able to see beneath our plain-to-see features. Fear and worry lead to desperation, upsetting our ability to think rationally in an un-affectional relationship/bond.

    #patienceispower :: I have been struggling with relationships lately (and dwelling on the lack of). Thank you for helping me find perspective.