Is Love at First Sight Possible?
Love at first sight is more than sexual attraction.
Posted Nov 17, 2013
“This is going to sound crazy, but... from the moment I first set eyes on you I haven't been able to stop thinking about you.” —Leigh Fallon, Carrier of the Mark
There are many reports about love at first sight. Thus, Carla Bruni said that it was love at first sight between her and the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. She said that what happened "between Nicolas and me was not quick, it was instant. So for us, [the wedding] was actually very slow."
Similarly, a woman said about her lover: "I loved him at first sight. And the very first time in my life I ever felt passionately was the moment I saw him. It was a feeling so loving, so tender, so wild, so overwhelming, and breath-taking, and all-involving, a feeling I did not know before."
Love at first sight is not easy to explain. Some people even deny that it is possible, claiming it is merely sexual attraction. Indeed, how can we fall profoundly in love after one quick glance? How can such a glance make us believe that we want to spend the rest of our life in the arms of a stranger we have just seen for the first time?
Arguments against love at first sight
“If you believe in love at first sight, you will never stop looking.” —Closer (2004 movie directed by Mike Nichols)
Arguments against the possibility of love at first sight are usually based on two main reasons. The first is an epistemic reason which claims that as the agent does not have sufficient knowledge about the person's characteristics in order to fall in love, her response is merely imaginary wishful thinking and not a real emotion. The second reason is existential. It refers to the fact that as the agent does not have the time to exercise the activities typical of love, her emotional response cannot be that of romantic love.
The first argument implies that romantic love consists not merely of attraction to external appearance, which is the basis of sexual desire, but also of knowing the agent's character traits, such as kindness, honesty, wisdom, and a sense of humor. Such knowledge cannot be present at first sight, as it requires familiarity and a common history (see here).
The fundamental mistake in this argument is the assumption that we cannot attribute to a person characteristics that are not seen at the moment. This assumption is incorrect since we often spontaneously attribute such characteristics by using certain stereotypical evaluations.
This is, for example, what underlies the “attractiveness halo,” in which what is beautiful is evaluated as also good. Accordingly, attractive people are more likely to be the object of love at first sight. It is as if these people begin the struggle to be loved with the initial obstacle already behind them.
In love at first sight, the high value accorded to the other’s external appearance is projected onto her internal characteristics. Love at first sight can often mislead since it is based more on imagination than on sight; however, it can still be love and is often very intense.
The second argument against love at first sight refers to the fact that love does not merely consist of feelings; rather, it essentially involves activities, and these cannot be exercised at first sight. In this regard, we may distinguish between action readiness and behavioral manifestation. Action readiness, rather than actual behavior, underlies emotions.
There are many instances of action readiness that are not translated into actual behavior because of moral considerations, actual cost, or other practical and normative concerns. Thus, someone who is suffering from total paralysis may be in love, although his love is unaccompanied by any muscular activity. In such cases, action readiness is also present.
The fact that love at first sight may be based upon unreliable information does not mean that it is not an instance of intense love. Research indicates that romantic love is often based upon idealization and positive illusions, and this is also true concerning love that lasts many years. This is also the case concerning other emotions. For instance, jealousy is often based upon incorrect beliefs about the partner's activities. The limited focus of emotions often leads people to hold distorted emotional beliefs.
The fact that love at first sight may perish after a while also does not imply that it was not an intense love. Time is not an exclusive or even the major measure of intense love. On the contrary, romantic intensity is likely to subside and even to disappear after a while.
Since love at first sight involves both the beliefs and action readiness that are typical of romantic love, it is an instance of romantic love. In order to explain the nature of love at first sight, romantic intensity must be distinguished from romantic profundity.
Romantic intensity and romantic profundity
“The only true love is love at first sight; second sight dispels it.” —Israel Zangwill
“Whoever loves, loves at first sight.” —William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
The distinction between romantic intensity and romantic profundity, a distinction that is seldom made, is crucial in understanding romantic love. In a nutshell, the main difference is that romantic profundity goes beyond sheer romantic intensity by including a temporal dimension.
Romantic intensity expresses a snapshot picture of a romantic experience at a given moment. In romantic profundity, the temporal dimension of love is added. Romantic profundity involves shared activities, which fulfill essential needs that are constitutive of the couple's long-term flourishing.
Accordingly, romantic profundity is described along two axes: intensity and the temporal (duration and frequency) dimension. Thus, a short episode of sexual desire may be more intense than a longer experience of romantic love, even though the former is less profound. The profundity of a romantic experience is different from the intensity with which it is felt.
The duration can indeed vary dramatically with comparable levels of intensity. In one empirical study, participants rated the positive emotion associated with having “someone you find attractive suggest you meet for coffee” as almost as high in intensity as the emotion experienced after “saving your neighbor’s child from a car accident.” However, the average estimated duration associated with the former was 20 minutes, whereas for the latter it was more than five hours; in this sense, the latter is more profound (Gilboa & Revelle, 1994).
The main added value in including the temporal dimension concerns the issue of (shared) activities. When we move from sheer emotional intensity to emotional profundity, what is vital is not merely that more time is spent together, but that it is time in which essential activities associated with the given emotion take place. If time is available but the activities are missing, the experience is not profound. Profound love can endure for a long time when it maintains romantic intensity on (at least) a moderate level, while significantly advancing the personal flourishing of each partner.
Love at first sight is essentially intense love. The great attractiveness strikes you like a flash of lightning, and you wish to prolong the time you spend with the other person. All measures of romantic intensity, such as the “heat” of feeling, the cognitive content of what the lover believes about the beloved, the strength of the positive evaluation of the beloved, and the measure and nature of the action readiness, are present in this response.
Love at first sight can be the basis for profound, long-term love, provided that characteristics typically revealed in verbal communication later enhance—or, at least, do not contradict—the characteristics perceived at first sight.
Love at first sight cannot be profound as there has been no time for creating such profoundness. However, love at first sight should not be described as shallow; it is just that the issue of profoundness is not yet relevant. Shallowness may arise when the phenomenon does not last long, but it cannot be said to be present when it just begins.
In the same manner, after 30 seconds of a football game, we would not say that the team's performance is shallow because no goal has been scored yet or no impressive action has yet occurred. The most we can say is that so far we cannot tell whether their performance is shallow, but based on the high level of the team's engagement, such a conclusion is probably not warranted.
Love at first acquaintance
"Of course I liked you, but then you opened your mouth." —A woman to a man on their first meeting
The survival chances of initial love increase when we consider love at first meeting (or acquaintance), rather than love at first sight. Such a meeting provides more time to get to know other characteristics of the person, such as wisdom, wittiness, and a sense of humor, and to become involved in initial common activities, such as conversation.
Moreover, signs of the unique instant connection ("chemistry") between the two agents might arise at the first meeting, such as a tender, "accidental" touch. This touching can be one-sided, although the touched side (often the female at this stage) may wish for reciprocal touching, but is not ready yet to take that step.
Love at first meeting is linked to the “personality halo,” in which a person who is perceived as having a certain positive personality trait is perceived to be attractive and assumed to have some other positive characteristics. It should be noted that although beauty has a powerful impact at first sight, the weight of this impact decreases as time passes, and after we get to know the person's other characteristics. Likewise, wittiness has a powerful impact at first chat, but its impact may be reduced once we know the person's other characteristics.
Is love at first sight a good indicator for the future?
"As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on." —Steve Jobs
Should we follow our heart and seriously pursue love at first sight? We usually should, as such love is a genuine expression of our response. Love at first sight is a matter of the heart, and as Steve Jobs said, "You'll know when you find it." And perhaps, "It just gets better and better as the years roll on." The issue, however, is more complex.
The relationship between love at first sight and the quality and the profundity of a subsequent relationship is mainly influenced by two opposing factors: (a) the initial positive impression has a positive impact upon the quality of the relationship, and (b) the brevity of time in which the partner is selected prevents the agent from identifying a significant personality similarity, which is vital for future
Research has demonstrated that initial evaluations have a significant influence on long-term relationships. The positive evaluations present in love at first sight, therefore, have a positive impact on the relationship. In this sense, if love at first sight develops into a long-term relationship, that relationship has a greater chance of achieving better quality. The importance of first impressions is illustrated in the well-known advertisement for hair shampoo, which declares, "You will never have a second chance to make a good first impression."
While positive first impressions increase the chances of long-term profound love, the superficial manner of choosing the partner in love at first sight may have a negative impact on the subsequent loving relationship. The fact that the beloved was a complete stranger to you gives rise to the possibility that you do not have much in common. The love may be intense, but not profound.
Indeed, studies have found that partners who fell in love at first sight, in comparison to partners who got involved more gradually, entered into intimate relationships more quickly after they met and had mates with less similar personalities, especially with regard to levels of extroversion, emotional stability, and autonomy This, however, did not necessarily lead to a low relationship quality, as the positive impact of the first impression can compensate for the superficial manner of choosing the partner (Barelds & Barelds-Dijkstra, 2007; Sunnafrank & Ramirez, 2004).
"Do you believe in love at first sight or should I walk by again?" —Unknown
Love at first sight is not merely sexual attraction. It is an intense form of romantic love that has a good chance of developing into profound, intense love, provided that the characteristics that are not seen at first sight are indeed similar to those the lover assumes, and that no external circumstances occur to terminate the relationship.
We should be aware, however, that love at first sight is merely intense and not profound love; hence, there is always a possibility that this love will not become profound enough to sustain a long-term, loving relationship. The probability of this is considerably reduced in the case of love at first meeting, in which more of the agent's characteristics are revealed.
Barelds, D. & Barelds-Dijkstra, P. (2007), Love at first sight or friends first? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 479-496.
Gilboa, E. & Revelle, W. (1994). Personality and the structure of affective responses. In S. H. M. van Goozen, N. E. van de Poll & J. A. Sergeant (Eds.), Emotions: Essays on emotion theory. Hillsdale: Erlbaum, pp. 135-159.
Sunnafrank, M. & Ramirez, A. (2004). At first sight: Persistent relational effects of get-acquainted conversations, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 361-379.