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27 December 2017

Love at first sight is really just lust or even false memory

Couple kissing
Physical attraction can distort perceptions

Annie Otzen/Getty

Your eyes met across a crowded room – but was it really love at first sight? One in three people say they have experienced the phenomenon, however a study suggests it probably doesn’t exist.

“People think of love at first sight as a lightning strike as soon as they see a person,” says Florian Zsok at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

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But research into the experience has mostly focused on people who are in relationships, which is likely to distort our understanding of it. If you are in a good relationship with someone, you are more likely to remember the beginning of that relationship in an exaggeratedly positive light.

So Zsok and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which volunteers saw new people for the first time. Each person filled in a survey and was asked how they felt about the people they saw or met.

The halo effect

The first experiment was designed to mimic online dating. In it, 282 volunteers were shown pictures on the internet of six people of the gender they found attractive, and were then surveyed on their feelings about them. Around half the volunteers were already in relationships. They were also asked about the early days of those relationships. A similar experiment involved showing 50 volunteers nine pictures.

Zsok and his team also studied the reactions of 64 people who met each other face-to-face, either at a bar, a speed-dating event or a food-based event designed to allow people to meet each other in groups of four.

Of the 396 volunteers across all arms of the study, 32 people reported experiencing love at first sight, says Zsok. However, none of these people matched, says Zsok. “There was no reciprocated love.”

Analysing the surveys showed that people are most likely to report love at first sight when they find someone physically attractive. We tend to associate a range of positive attributes to good-looking people, a phenomenon known as the halo effect. This might help explain why people think they are falling in love with someone at first sight, says Zsok.

What is love?

“What you feel is lust at first sight, and is largely subconscious,” says Anna Machin at the University of Oxford. “Love is an attachment that comes later. It is more complex and involves conscious reflection on a relationship.”

In reality, it is unlikely that people ever form this kind of connection upon meeting one another, says Zsok. “People like this romantic idea, but you have to read between the lines.”

So why do so many people feel like it has happened to them? People often misremember the early stages of what is now a successful relationship, says Machin. “It’s an unconscious attempt to underpin a relationship,” she says. “Telling someone 20 years down the line that you loved them at first sight is a lovely thing to say and a good way to maintain a relationship.”

But Sandra Langeslag at the University of Missouri-St Louis disagrees. The fact that some people said they felt love at first sight means it does exist, as long as you use a broad definition of what love is, she says. “A lot of people refer to the deep love you experience in a relationship, but I would call infatuation and sexual desire a type of love.”

Journal reference: Personal Relationships, DOI: 10.1111/pere.12218

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