The Science of Love at First Sight

Author and journalist, Kayt Sukel, delves into the science behind the phenomenon of ‘love at first sight’ and asks the question 'Is it real?'

BY THE ROAM TEAM 7 MIN READ

WORDS TO KNOW
Love at first sight

Love at first sight is an experience and common trope when a person feels an instant, extreme romantic attraction for a stranger when they first see them.

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When I was a little girl, my grandfather used to regale me of stories of when he first met my grandmother. 

“One look was all it took!” he said, emphatically tapping his chest. “I looked into her eyes and Cupid hit me directly in the heart.”

The idea of love at first sight, certainly, is incredibly romantic. We love the idea that we might meet a stranger and, after only exchanging a glance or two, walk away with a soulmate. Let’s face it: dating (and everything surrounding it) can be a slog. It’s one of the reasons the idea of love at first sight is so appealing. It’s easy to keep kissing frogs if you are only one look away from finding your prince or princess.

While my grandfather remained convinced he was in love after some very limited eye contact, my grandmother had a different tale of their first encounter, despite the fact it resulted in a more than 50-year marriage.

“He was actually a little rude,” she said. “It took me some time to warm up to him.”

It begs the question: is love at first sight a legitimate phenomenon? 

Measuring love at first sight

Love at first sight is challenging to study. Given that people often report experiencing the phenomenon more than once across their lifetimes, it’s not always easy to understand what questions to ask. Is a matter of strong physical attraction? Is it the beginnings of romantic love? Or do we retrospectively label our lasting romances as love at first sight for some reason?

A group of psychologists at the University of Gröningen in the Netherlands decided to try suss out some of the differences. They recruited 400 men and women to fill out questionnaires about how the participants felt about potential romantic partners they observed in photographs or in person. These surveys asked about physical attraction, romantic feelings, and, of course, sexual passion. The metric also included a question about whether the participant was experiencing love at first sight. The results helped to put a few things into context.

Men are more likely to report love at first sight

My grandfather wasn’t the only one to be immediately smitten by Cupid’s arrow – nor to have his partner question his account of their first meeting. Men tend to report love at first sight more often than women – and report it with multiple potential partners. Women tend to be more reserved in their initial judgments. Why these sex differences occur is up for debate. Some take the evolutionary biological argument that it pays for women to be pickier in selecting a mate to produce the best offspring, given the investment of bearing and raising a child.

But the feeling isn't always mutual

The researchers also discovered that it’s rare for two parties to agree that their first encounter was love at first sight. As my grandmother said, it took some time for her to warm up to my grandfather – but, his intense feelings for her meant that he put significant time and effort in wooing her. It’s hard to resist that kind of adoration.

Not love, but attraction

The study’s findings also support that love at first sight is not love, per se, but rather an intense physical attraction. But it’s a strong enough attraction to fuel the desire to do the work that may ultimately result in romantic love – and, of course, provide a great story to entertain your grandchildren after.

What does that mean for those of us who may still be looking for a long-term partner? Simply stated, it pays to keep looking. You never know who you may be attracted to – or which of those attractions will translate into long term love. But if you keep getting out there and meeting new people, you may find yourself in a love-at-first-sight situation that ends up going the distance.

By Kayt Sukel

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