Q: I saw this gorgeous girl at the coffeehouse at the mall two months ago. It was totally love at first sight. I keep hanging out there hoping to see her again. Am I nuts, or does love at first sight really exist?—Smitten
A: It’s so special when a man tells a woman that he’s deeply in love with her—except when her response is, “Excuse me, but have we met?”
Love at first sight sounds so romantic. There are those couples who claim they had it—causing mass nausea at dinner parties when they look into each other’s eyes and announce, “From the moment we saw each other, we just KNEW.” Uh, or did they? A Swiss psychology grad student, Florian Zsok, ran some experiments to see what love at first sight is actually made of.
Zsok and his colleagues were looking for the three elements that psychologist Robert Sternberg theorizes interact to produce love: Intimacy, commitment and passion. They surveyed participants online and in a lab setting—asking them how they felt about people in photographs—and in three dating events, getting their reactions to people they’d just met. Of the 396 participants, love at first sight “was indicated 49 times by 32 different individuals.” And here’s a shocker: “None of the instances of (love at first sight) was reciprocal.”
Not surprisingly, none of the participants who said they’d felt love at first sight had the elements of intimacy or commitment as part of their experience. The one element they did have? Passion—in the form of “physical attraction.” Basically, the researchers empirically confirmed what some of us intuitively understand: “Love at first sight” is just a classier way of expressing the sentiment yelled from passing cars: “Hey, miniskirt! You’re late for your visit to My Penis Avenue!”
As for couples who insist that they had love at first sight, the researchers believe that they could be retrospectively repainting their first meeting to make their relationship feel more special. The reality: “We just knew” is “we just got lucky.”
Reminding yourself that you just have the plain old hots for this girl is probably the best way for you to do what needs to be done—shift to some other activity when the impulse strikes to stake out Coffeeland. Getting stuck on a total stranger this way probably makes it impossible to behave normally in their presence—or want to look closely enough to see who they really are. As alluring a concept as love at first sight is, in practice it tends to work out best with inanimate objects—something that doesn’t take so long to text you back that you buy it a burial plot.
Q: My family enjoys your weekly column, but we’re wondering why you can’t give advice without launching into evolutionary explanations. We aren’t always instinct-driven animals like elk or migrating salmon.—Evolutionary Overkill
A: It isn’t so bad being a salmon. Salmon just wake up one day and swim like mad upstream. There’s no existential fretting, “What does it all mean? What will I do with myself after grad school? Am I a bad fish if I sometimes long to put grain alcohol in the sippy cup of that brat screaming on the beach?”
Meanwhile, back in humanland, research in cognitive neuroscience (by Michael Gazzaniga, among others) and in social science finds that we humans aren’t the highly rational independent thinkers we like to believe we are.
In fact, as evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby put it, “our modern skulls house a stone age mind”—adapted to solve hunter-gatherer mating and survival problems. This 10-million-year-old psychology, still driving us right now, today, is often a mismatch with our modern environment. Take our sugar lust, for example. This made sense in an ancestral environment, where eating a couple of berries might have helped prevent malnutrition. Today, however, we can drive to Costco and have some guy load a pallet of doughnuts into our SUV while we burn .0003 of a calorie watching him.
Understanding the origins of our motivation is not “evolutionary overkill,” but our best shot for possibly controlling our behavior—or at least forgiving ourselves when we fail miserably. As my First Amendment lawyer friend Ken White (@Popehat) tweeted about S’mores Girl Scout Cookies: “I thought they were kind of meh at first but by the third box I ate in the garage they were growing on me.”