Love at First Sight Feels Magical, but What Is It Really?

Results from new research may or may not surprise you.

Posted Nov 22, 2017

     ""Love at first sight is easy to understand; it's when two people have been looking at each other for a lifetime that it becomes a miracle." —Sam Levenson

What is love at first sight? Is it even real, or is this romantic ideal purely illusion? Is there such a thing as soulmates, who see one another and just know they are meant to be together forever? Or does it take time and effort to develop a deep, mutual relationship constituting soulmates?

If love at first sight (LAFS) is real, does it predict long-term intimacy, or do people who achieve long-term intimacy in a romantic relationship rewrite the story of their early relationship to meet expectations of romantic love and maintain stability in committed relationships? Love at first sight is a powerful notion, but of unclear validity or meaning.

Literature on Love at First Sight

With that in mind, Zsok and colleagues (2017) sought to clarify what people actually experience when they report feeling love at first sight. The researchers note that there are several possibilities in the literature for what LAFS may be:

1. The product of biased memory.

LAFS may be a position illusion, a shared narrative, potentially coming from several possible overlapping sources: to make the relationship feel special to the couple; to conform with cultural ideals for relationships; the result of outcome bias in which present relationship success is applied in hindsight to earlier parts of the relationship; projections of current feelings of passion onto the past; and reporting LAFS when it was not present in order to avoid upsetting romantic partners, consciously or unconsciously;

2. The result of physical attraction.

Physical attraction is typically felt immediately, matching the time course of LAFS, and predicts speed-dating outcomes. Physical attraction is a common theme when people are asked about LAFS, and it has been correlated with LAFS. Because physically attractive people are on average viewed more positively, this "halo" effect may also contribute to the experience of LAFS. Sexual motives may be a part of LAFS, but are not typically reported when LAFS is investigated.

3. An expression of infatuation.

Established romantic relationships are characterized by intimacy, passion, and commitment, involving trust, caring, and intimacy. These factors are unlikely to be present right away, so probably do not contribute to LAFS. Infatuation, defined as high passion without intimacy and commitment, could play a role in love at first sight. Infatuation has also been discussed by other researchers as "eros," a form of heightened passion found in couples who claim, in hindsight, to have experienced LAFS. As noted, this may be a form of hindsight bias.

Study Hypotheses & Design

In their research, Zsok and colleagues explored several important questions using actual and simulated dating scenarios: Do study subjects actually report experiencing LAFS? Is LAFS reported when the prospective mate is deemed more physically attractive? Are the indicators of committed love lower in LAFS than romantic relationships? Are the hypothetically quicker feelings of passion and eros higher in LAFS than the slower experiences of commitment and intimacy? Does LAFS predict greater passion and eros in romantic couples?

Researchers explored these questions in three settings — a laboratory study, an online survey, and three dating events. All together, they recruited 396 participants, 62 percent of whom were women. Their average age was 24, and approximately 95 percent were queer. In the lab study and online survey, participants were presented with carefully portrayed photographs of members of the attractive sex, and were instructed to imagine they were speed-dating. This is similar to people who use online dating apps to seek prospective partners, and may experience a strong feeling of love within moments of seeing a profile photo and getting a little bit of carefully curated information. The live dating events involved a longer time frame (90 minutes) group dating event with three rounds, a speed-dating experience, and an unstructured meet and greet with 20-minute rounds. In all live conditions, participants were given anonymous name tags and discreet survey response forms to preserve anonymity and therefore increase the likelihood of accurate reporting.

Self-report surveys included an assessment of physical attractiveness, an LAFS scale, a measure of eros involving a feeling of being meant to be together, and the Triangular Love Scale (TLS) assessing passion (drawing on the work of Sternberg), intimacy, and commitment. It is worth noting that the TLS factors likely reflect a single underlying factor for long-term relationships, but for short-term relationships may distinguish separate characteristics, which blend together as a relationship matures. They asked participants if they were in a romantic relationship and tracked other relevant demographics.

Results & Implications

Most respondents did not report feeling love at first sight, and the average LAFS score was quite low overall. However, 32 participants reported LAFS 49 times with various prospective partners, showing that LAFS does happen. The majority of LAFS instances were online or in person. Overall, 30 percent of subjects reported experiencing LAFS. What was the single greatest predictor of LAFS? Physical attraction, highly significant statistically, with an odds ratio of 9. The chance of LAFS was 9 times higher for each additional unit of physical attraction. Based on their regression model, almost 90 percent of LAFS were predictable from ratings of physical attraction.

Zsok et al., 2017
Source: Zsok et al., 2017

The TLS measures of commitment, passion, and intimacy were overall highly correlated with one another, and this applied not only to romantic couples, but also across the whole sample, suggesting that the TLS is measuring one underlying factor, which also correlated with measure of eros. TLS and eros were found to be significantly different among the relationship group, the LAFS group, and the non-LAFS group. Those in relationships reported the highest TLS/eros scores, those in the LAFS group lower but significant scores, and those in the non-LAFS group a significant reverse correlation.

After further analysis of the data comparing LAFS with non-LAFS encounters to see whether some factors of the TLS/eros measures were more important than others, results showed that only eros was a significant predictor for LAFS, accounting for only 11 percent of the variance, compared with the much stronger effect of physical attraction. Passion and commitment were correlated as well, but not significantly after regression analysis. Men were more likely to report LAFS than women. All of the reported LAFS were one-directional as well, dampening the appealing notion that two people may meet and fall in love with one another instantly. When LAFS is one-sided, and attraction is unrequited, it may be a very disappointing experience, leading to distress, heartbreak, and possibly jealous or aggressive reactions in some.

Further research is required to tell whether mutual LAFS is more prevalent in the general population or a feature of the convenience sample who volunteered for this study — or if mutual LAFS does occur, how often does that happen, and what factors predict that it will happen? Clearly, there's something to be said for a strong, initial mutual physical attraction, though this does not necessarily translate into long-term relationship satisfaction. For some, the initial attraction may even lead to lower long-term relationship satisfaction, as initial inflated positive feelings and high expectations lead to disappointment if the initial intensity and excitement drops off too quickly.

Zsok et al., 2017
Source: Zsok et al., 2017

But intimacy was not correlated with LAFS. This is an interesting finding, if replicated, because it suggests that the romantic notion of predestined meaningful connection may in fact be a sweet, yet fanciful, misconception. The experience of immediate, deep connection (being soulmates, feeling sympatico, meeting because of fate or destiny) sounds much better than believing we simply found someone very attractive. To bring home what this really means, recall that 9-fold multiple for each incremental unit of attractiveness — "Was s/he an 8 or a 9? Or a 10? Maybe that's why I felt love at first sight." 

While it is less romantic, it is useful to recognize how the first moments of a date actually work, because then we could make better choices armed with that information — though if things don't work out, the possible explanations may be harsher than ascribing it to fate. These findings support the arguments for illusory narratives, projections, positive self-deceptions, and cultural expectations shaping how we perceive, recount, and interpret what relationships mean, and influencing how they progress in part by providing positive narratives which may serve to help keep relationships together. It also tells us that if you want people to fall in love with you as soon as they meet you, the single most effective thing you can do is be more physically attractive to them.

Getting Gussied Up

Of course, this is just what people try to do — not only do they try to look their best in general, we also may try to tailor our look to a particular individual or group on a first date (and over time for particular people we are dating, or want to date). Many great stories are based on mishaps which are the direct result of pretending to be who we are not in order to attract a mate — from ancient mythology to Cyrano de Bergerac to the countless modern iterations on the theme in cinema, novels, television shows, and cartoons. Chalk it up to evolution, if you like, that over the eons simply being physically attractive is the biggest factor driving the first moments of bonding. Whether it works out and produces offspring and the long-term relationship required to rear that offspring, or leads to a false start, the basic formula to initiate mating rituals by seeking the nearest, most attractive mate by assortment may be the main dynamic. Eros — a meaningful, passionate experience — may also play a role, perhaps smaller, but in some ways more important. Of course, what goes into physical attraction is a popular topic all on its own.

So Love at First Sight Is Basically Physical Attraction?

According to this study, love at first sight basically is physical attraction, with a dash of passion. This redefines the conception of love at first sight and supports an illusory and adaptive conceptualization of it. Moreover, it deflates idealized notions of romantic love which lead us to hope for and even expect to meet someone, fall in love immediately, know it is right, and be sure it will work out. On one hand, this may be positive, because it allows us to make more accurate appraisals and decisions, but it also may reduce the illusory optimism which at times allows us to move forward and take more chances in the face of poorer odds. After all, success can come from fewer, more precise trials, as well as from a broader range of more widespread attempts.

Do You Realize?

Future research should look at the relationship between numerous early details in relationships, including attractiveness, chemical factors (scent being one of them), psychosocial, brain-based and other factors — developing causal and predictive models of how these factors lead to positive and negative relationship outcomes, and incorporating broader and additionally informative rating scales and analytic methods. In the meantime, you'll have to decide what strategy is best for you, or just not worry about it, if you aren't interested in making intentional moves to try to control the outcome (not to mention the effect of alcohol, etc. on our perception of attractiveness). Or maybe you're just curious. But if you are playing the game, do you want to "be yourself," or try to look as attractive as possible for potential dates and mates? Is being yourself actually the same thing for you as looking your best, rather than a source of conflict? Do "authenticity," inner beauty, and other offerings win the long-game over short-term, direct competition against your opposition on the field of attraction?

Regardless, love at first sight still feels magical, and the incredible complexity of how we relate truly is magical — all the more so for a detailed understanding, as long as we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I'm reminded of smart and emotionally-stable-seeming online dating photo series which start with the most physically attractive presentations (which have a lot of twists and turns, sometimes literally) and then sometimes has the "honest" me-not-at-my-best-the-morning-after-partying-too-much photos, which ostensibly are less conventionally attractive, yet still appealing, but also hold forth the promise of the next morning. There are many variations on image management and self-presentation when it comes to dating apps, and many different sequences to communicate different meanings and entice (or repel) in various ways, a fascinating subject for another time.

References

Zsok F, Haucke M, De Wit CY, & Barelds DPH. (2017). What kind of love is love at first sight? An empirical investigation. Personal Relationships, 17 NOV, DOI: 10.1111/pere.12218