The popular reality show Love Is Blind takes the concept of "love at first sight” completely off the table. In the show, participants talk to other singles in separate rooms, or pods, and don’t see the other person until after they fall in love, sight unseen, and get engaged. Then after a short time together, the couples must make a choice. Will they commit forever?
On the other hand, for many singles today, using online dating apps means relying heavily on photos as a way to attract — and evaluate — potential partners.
But what can science tell us about the phenomenon of "love at first sight" and the role of physical attraction? While experts and researchers don't deny that physical attraction can be an important part of the courting process, it isn’t the most important factor when it comes to long-lasting romantic love.
Is There Such a Thing as Love at First Sight?
Physical attraction is indeed an important element in establishing romantic ties. It's often the starting point in relationships and can help people connect in order to foster an emotional attachment, according to a study published in 2016 in Frontiers in Psychology. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute, backs this up; from an evolutionary perspective, when it comes to romantic love and finding a potential partner, looks do play a role.
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“Romantic love evolved to enable this form of partnership; to be attracted to somebody long enough to get together and send your DNA into tomorrow," says Fisher, who also serves as the chief science advisor for the online dating website Match.com.
According to traditional evolutionary theories, “it shouldn't really matter whether you get along well. It's more about all those good genes,” adds Alexander Baxter, a graduate researcher at the University of California, Davis. “It's survival of the fittest, right?”
Take, for example, the female house finch, who looks for a male with the most vibrantly colored feathers. Why? Feather color can be an indicator of good health and ability to obtain food — qualities important for survival and reproduction. Evolutionary psychologists believe it’s similar for humans, in that physical attractiveness can correlate to good health and fertility. It may even help extend your lifespan; being physically attracted to one’s partner is linked to longevity and greater relationship satisfaction, according to a 2015 study.
Does Physical Attraction Matter?
To understand more about what traits singles look for in a partner today, Fisher, along with other researchers and the support of Match.com, has been conducting the “Singles in America” study for the past 12 years. In almost every year since the study's inception, physical attraction has been included in the top five traits. But last year, for the first time, physical attraction didn’t make the cut.
Fisher believes the results suggest that participants are giving more people a chance and getting to know them, rather than judging simply on looks. According to the study, the percentage of people who have ever fallen madly in love with someone they didn’t initially find attractive was the highest the past year too, with about 50 percent responding "yes," compared to 2012, when only 38 percent had become smitten with a partner they weren't attracted to at first.
Do Looks Matter?
After falling in love, Fisher says that looks become less and less important over time. That's because when you're still in that puppy-love phase, your brain is flooding your body with feel-good chemicals.
"You're driving up the dopamine system [when you fall in love],” Fisher says. “So, suddenly, this person takes on special meaning. Everything about them becomes special.”
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. It’s the chemical that makes us crave that person and want to spend more time with them, Baxter explains. He even references lyrics in Taylor Swift’s song “August” as an example. When Swift sings, “canceled my plans just in case you'd call” — that’s the dopamine talking, Baxter says.
When a person is in love, certain areas of the brain associated with judging negative behavior and making crucial social assessments can be suppressed, too. Some researchers even found participants with higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and attachment, rated their partner's behavior higher compared to those with lower levels, according to a 2017 study. Thus, higher levels of oxytocin might play a role as to why we might ignore certain things when we are in love — to help with the bonding process and to help keep people together.
On the flipside, researchers say these “rose-colored glasses” can be detrimental if they're causing you to overlook red flags in the beginning, or even later stages, of a relationship. Maybe this increase in dopamine and oxytocin helps explain why Kelly Clarkson’s song “The Trouble With Love Is” claims that love is “like a drug that makes you blind; it'll fool you every time.”
Sexual Attraction and First Impressions
Baxter wanted to understand more about first impressions and how romantic relationships form. To find out, he and other researchers had over 550 participants engage in a speed-dating event. They were surveyed beforehand to measure their romantic and sexual attraction towards the people they met — and afterwards to find out if they were still dating, or if their romantic desires had changed.
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In the end, compatibility and a trait known as "mate value" proved to be the most important predictors of a budding romantic relationship. Mate value, Baxter says, is basically “any trait or characteristic that signals fertility or genetics that are good [for] health and relate to survival.” For example, if someone received high ratings from everyone they dated, this showed how “popular” or “conventionally attractive” they were, which correlates to one’s mate value. Compatibility refers to the formation of a unique connection and the alignment of values between potential partners.
In the context of Love Is Blind, Baxter explains how he remembers a lot of women were interested in one of the participants who exhibited these two traits.
“I think some of them their interest was based on compatibility, but also on popularity,” Baxter says. “Love can be blind if it’s built on this sort of compatibility, but it is also not blind if you know someone's popular, and you can tell both those factors are influencing who people want to date and who they're going for."
Finding True Love
When it comes to finding true love and making a relationship work in the long-term, Baxter says more and more social science research shows it's about compatibility and connection — and less about physical attraction, especially when the initial honeymoon phase wears off.
“Just because people have love at first sight, and triggers brain circuitry doesn’t mean they are going to be a partnership forever," says Fisher. “It can disappear.” You might even find you have nothing in common after those feel-good chemicals fade.
While a majority of people in the U.S. believe in love at first sight, 2017 study in Personal Relationships note that the phenomenon hasn't been investigated much by scientists. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a long-lasting, healthy relationship, Fisher says that in addition to really taking the time to get to know someone, rather than relying on a dopamine rush or someone's attractiveness in a photo, “you should think about if someone fits what you’re looking for in a partner.”
Similarly, Baxter says you should ask yourself, “What’s really important to me?”
After thinking about the answer, you might even be likely to give more people a chance. As Tiffany, a contestant on this past season of Love Is Blind, says to her fiancé Brett at the altar: “It wasn’t a physical thing. It was simply how you spoke to my soul.”