It’s Valentine’s day and love is in the air, but can you find it through your eyes? Can seeing really be believing? It’s not uncommon to hear a couple describe the first time that they met as love at first sight, but is this real or are they just looking back on that first encounter with rose-tinted spectacles?
Love at first sight or first meeting?
It’s a powerful idea, to be able feel that you’re in love with someone just from seeing them for the first time. You wouldn’t find it surprising that there might be some scepticism if you were to announce this. Often, it’s argued that it can’t truly exist as we can never know enough about someone to fall in love with them after just a glance. It would totally disregard the importance of someone’s personality if it was only their appearance that made you fall in love.
But, just because you can’t “see” their characteristics, it doesn’t mean that you don’t make assumptions that they are there. We might see someone giving their spare change to a homeless person on the street and believe that they’re a kind person, when they actually spent the rest of their day trolling people on twitter. This also works the other way, though we can assume that someone is kind from their appearance and it could turn out to be true, which would only reinforce our thought that we “always knew”.
Romantic and long-term love is tied up in seeing the positive aspects of someone’s nature and time is not the only way to measure love. Just because a love that started at first sight didn’t last forever, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a true instance of love.
Maybe if we think about love at ‘first meeting’, it’s a bit more helpful. Most people who describe their ‘love at first sight’ moment will have probably communicated with each other. This means that they’re far more likely to have a chance to see if there’s some chemistry between them and it encourages them to get to know each other more.
A sceptical study of love at first sight
Researchers from the University of Groningen, took a less enthusiastic view after a study last year. They had nearly 400 Dutch & German students fill out a questionnaire on their current romantic relationship status. They were then asked to look at pictures of several people they’d never met: rate their level of attraction and describe any feelings of intimacy, passion or commitment they might be feeling. Participants were also asked if they agreed with the statement ‘I am experiencing love at first sight’.
They also ran a speed dating event, where the participants were asked afterwards how attracted they were to their dates and if they thought it was love at first sight. After largely negative responses to both scenarios in terms of “love at first sight”, they concluded it doesn’t seem to exist. Instead they saw it as more likely that people remembered their strong initial attraction to one another and combined it with how they feel about their partner in the present to conclude that they fell in love at first sight.
Why they’re wrong
This doesn’t mean that there’s no hope! The situations used for this study were highly artificial, and love at first sight is something that you’d expect to occur in a much more natural environment.
Looking at photographs at someone in a university lab and thinking about whether you find them attractive is not really comparable to seeing someone across a crowded room and having a strong feeling about them. Speed dating is notoriously awkward and even if you get on with someone, it’s likely that you’re just relieved that it wasn’t ridiculously uncomfortable, rather than feeling like you’re in love with them.
Is there a look of love?
How much of love at first sight depends on the eyes? The University of Chicago researched whether the eyes really do “have it”. They conducted a study that explored whether eye movements can reveal if a person was experiencing lust or love. They presented images depicting ‘romantic love’ and images that were more focused on physical desire. The results showed that participants were more likely to focus on people’s face for romantic images but focus on their body for the other images.
While it’s hardly comprehensive proof, it does indicate that some of our automatic functions may play a part in distinguishing a feeling of love from a feeling of attraction. Maybe there is a look of love after all!
Overall, with something as complicated and unscientific as love, it’s hard to design tests and studies that can prove anything about it. We say, if you believe that it was love at first sight, then it probably was, and we doubt there’ll ever be science that can prove otherwise!