Is Love at First Sight Real?

Many people swear they fell in love with someone within an hour.

Posted Sep 25, 2019

For decades, researchers of the thorny subject of love have tried to figure out whether “love at first sight” was real or just a nice romantic notion. Through the first half of the 20th century, the cards of the deck were definitely stacked against it being recognized as a legitimate experience that happened to an individual. Around 1960, more evidence was presented showing that “love at first sight” was a myth; an instant attraction and infatuation could very well take place the first time two people met, sociologist Judson T. Landis reported, but true love required some time to develop. In 1972, Bernard I. Murstein joined the chorus of dismissing the popular idea of “love at first sight.” The professor of psychology at Connecticut College agreed with previous researchers positing that the genuine version of the emotion could only result after individuals developed a relationship over a period of time.

Although most researchers believed it had no scientific basis, “love at first sight” remained an area of interest in the United States, especially among those who swore they had experienced it. Erica Jong, who knew a good deal about love, for example, claimed she fell at first sight with a driver who had come to pick her up at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1974. Given the growing evidence that what we called love was a product of some form of brain chemistry, the idea of a person being smitten with another upon their initial confrontation was now beginning to be seen as not entirely unreasonable: A rush of phenylethylamine resulting from an intense physical attraction to someone was likely what we called love at first sight, researchers argued, something many of us experienced to a certain degree one time or another.

Indeed, many people over the years have sworn they had fallen in love with someone within an hour of meeting. By the beginning of the 21st century, some research was showing that love at first sight (now commonly called LAFS) was real, with a surprising number of Americans saying it had happened to them.

One study of 1,500 American adults found that almost two-thirds believed in LAFS, and that more than half had experienced it personally. “His eyes almost put me in a trance, my heart fluttered and I got tingly,” said one 32-year old woman in the study, the more remarkable thing being that it happened to her when she was 15.

Experts were careful to distinguish LAFS from lust, as the former was much more than physical attraction or sexual desire. Love at first sight was “magical and sacred for those lucky enough to have the experience,” noted Howard Markman, a psychologist at the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and co-editor of Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, seeing it as an ideal basis for marriage.

Anthropologists, meanwhile, believed the phenomenon was rooted in physiology and evolution, although the conditions had to be right for it to happen. (Timing, mystery, and the presence of some kind of barrier(s) were believed to all play a part.) The Internet version of LAFS was LAFB—love at first byte—in which two people somehow instantly fell head over heels with each other after a simple exchange of text.

More recently, love at first sight has emerged as a primary theme in popular reality shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. These shows have been based on the premise of love blooming instantly, or nearly so, in a controlled setting (while millions of viewers watch the proceedings). Most experts have pooh-poohed the idea that genuine and lasting love could result from such overtly commercial and contrived situations, but others, notably Helen Fisher, believe the principles of love at first sight could apply. Fisher, a biological anthropologist and perhaps the biggest name in the field of love studies, has been a strong supporter of the legitimacy of love at first sight. Romantic love was “an emotional obsession,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2015, and “an adaptive mechanism for attraction and to start the mating process quickly.” If three things about a person—physical attraction, a desirable personality, and the belief that the other person liked you—were present, she argued, “love at first sight” was an entirely real possibility.

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