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Scientists explain 'love at first sight'

Every third American reports that he or she has experienced it.

Photo: Pixabay

Fifty-six percent of Americans believe in love at first sight, and every third person reports that he or she has experienced it. This is hardly surprising given the fact that art and literature have glorified it for thousands of years. But what exactly is it and does it have a universal definition? A 2017 study from the University of Groningen has given us some empirical insights to burst our romantic bubbles.

Previous research has labeled love at first sight (LAFS) as a “positive illusion" or a biased memory couples create in order to enhance their relationship. This sounds completely plausible given the fact that we are prone to outcome bias - evaluating the quality of a decision based on the outcome.

So, if we end up with someone, our belief that we knew this all along, from the very first moment, is going to strengthen. Similarly, if we don't end up with someone, it is highly likely we will not assign the label of LAFS to that encounter at all.

Indeed, 92 percent of 558 people who claimed to have experienced LAFS reported that they later fell in mutual love with this person and developed a romantic relationship with them. However, this explanation accounts neither for the 8% who did not develop a relationship nor for instances of unrequited LAFS.

Another mechanism of creating the illusion of LAFS is the tendency of couples to project their current feelings back to the first moment they met. After all, psychology has shown us that we are story-making creatures who tend to view their past in light of the present, underestimating changes that occur over time.

Then there is the link between physical attraction and love at first sight, especially when we are first meeting someone new. In fact, studies show that physical attraction at zero acquaintance predicts the outcomes of speed-dating sessions very well, and being physically attracted to someone predicts whether or not we will report experiencing LAFS.

In addition, physical attractiveness carries with itself the so-called “halo effect" — our tendency to assign more positive personality traits to people we find physically attractive. This positively biased evaluation of someone we find attractive may contribute to the illusion of experiencing LAFS.

To examine whether the above hypotheses about LAFS are true, the authors of the study What kind of love is love at first sight? An empirical investigation, collected data in three different contexts: online, in the lab, and at three dating events from a total of 396 participants with a mean age of 24.18 years.

The participants were asked to fill out questionnaires either about their current partners or about potential ones they met in person or saw in pictures. They had to report whether they had experienced love at first sight, physical attraction, and also which components of love they experienced: intimacy, commitment, passion and eros (a style of love characterized by high passion and intensity).

The results showed that, indeed, experiencing physical attraction highly correlates with experiencing LAFS. In fact, the data showed that 1-unit increase in attractiveness ratings lead to a chance of LAFS about 9 times as high. Interestingly, men were more likely to experience LAFS on the spot.

In couples, reporting love at first sight retroactively was most strongly correlated with eros, then passion, followed by commitment. This correlation was not observed in people who met for the first time.

Finally, the researchers found out that people who reported experiencing love at first sight were “stark outliers." Most of the respondents strongly disagreed with the statement and there wasn't even a single instance of reciprocal LAFS, where two people reported experiencing the feeling for each other. This may be the reason why people usually recall such an event as only occurring once in their life.

"LAFS might sometimes be one-sided initially, and this might serve as a basis for the development of mutual LAFS as a construed memory in the couple. The perceiver might “convince" the LAFS target of their mutual LAFS across the trajectory of relationship development. This might be enhanced by the cognitive biases of couples in love."

Ultimately, it appears that love at first sight is simply a strong initial attraction, the idea of which could also be fabricated once we are in a couple through biased memories. This may not be such a bad thing, however. The authors note that people who report LAFS with a partner (who have created this memory together) tend to experience more love and passion in their relationship.

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Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
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