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It’s a trope of Hollywood: when two people realise in an instant that they have met the one they want to spend the rest of their lives with. In reality too, happy long-term couples will tell you, perhaps a little too smugly, and doing that gazing into each other’s eyes thing, how it was simply “love at first sight”. Mutual, of course.
We’re sorry to spoil the mood music, but a new paper in Personal Relationships – one of the first attempts to study this phenomenon scientifically – concludes that while believing one has fallen instantly in love does seem to be a genuine experience, it’s not really about love at all, but more to do with physical attraction (and it’s rarely mutual). And while people who remember having fallen in love with their partner at first sight do describe their relationship as more passionate in the present, their recall is probably little more than a “confabulated memory” – a “projection of their current feelings into the past”.
The new evidence, collected by Florian Zsok and his colleagues at the University of Groningen, comes from a mix of studies involving a total of 396 participants, about 60 per cent of them women, mostly heterosexual, young Dutch and German students.
Zsok’s team recruited the majority of the participants via an online survey: they answered questions about their current romantic relationship, if they were in one, and they looked at pictures of several potential partners (people they’d never met before) and rated their attraction to them, any feelings of love, including intimacy, passion and commitment, which are the different components of the “triangular theory of love“, and also “eros”, which is measured by items like “I feel that the person and I were meant for each other”. Crucially, participants also stated whether they agreed that “I am experiencing love at first sight”. A similar process was performed by more participants who attended a psych lab where they looked at pictures of potential partners.
Two other studies involved speed dating exercises in which potential partners met each other for 90 minutes in one case, or 20 minutes in another. As with the online survey and lab study, these participants answered questions about feelings of attraction towards their dates, any experience of love at first sight, and other feelings of love.
Across the studies, 32 participants (more often men) described 49 experiences of love at first sight, either toward a pictured potential partner, or toward someone they met at one of the speed dating sessions. Experiencing love at first sight wasn’t accompanied by particularly strong ratings of any of the different kinds of love, including passion or intimacy, but was strongly associated with finding the other person highly attractive. Indeed, a one-point increase on the 5-point attraction scale (from finding them “not at all” physically attractive to “very much”) was associated with a nine-fold increased likelihood of reporting love at first sight. At the speed dating events, none of the instances of love at first sight was reciprocal.
“To conclude,” the researchers write, “our findings suggest that love at first sight reported at actual first sight resembles neither passionate love nor love more generally.” Rather, they believe love at first sight is “a strong initial attraction that some label as ‘love at first sight’ – either retrospectively or in the moment of first sight.”
It’s true that the participants who were currently in a relationship and who said they’d fallen in love with their partner at first sight, did tend to describe their current relationship in more passionate terms (than others who didn’t say they fell in love at first sight). But Zsok and his team say that rather than love at first sight laying the foundations for more passionate relationships, the “more scientific explanation might be that people project their current feelings into the past”.
It’s not a particularly romantic paper, but then again, it may have inspired a coming together or sorts: romantics and sceptics will likely be united in their doubts about this research. Rating pictures of potential partners on a computer screen (which was the basis of much of the new evidence) hardly captures the reality of that magical moment when time stands still and you realise he or she is your everything. The speed dating studies were a little more realistic, but by definition they are contrived, and only 50 people participated in this part of the research. It will take more than this to stop many of us believing in romantic fairytales.