Love at First Sight

The song "Some Enchanted Evening" from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific warns us that, when it comes to explaining love at first sight, "Fools give you reasons. Wise men never try." Notwithstanding this lyrical warning, more and more psychologists are trying to solve this age-old mystery.

According to a recent survey, almost two out of three Americans believe in love at first sight (Naumann, 2001). The survey reported that over half of them have actually experienced it, and over half of those went on to marry the person they had instantly fallen in love with.

The concept of love at first sight goes all the way back to the days of the ancient Greeks, who worshiped a goddess they called Aphrodite. (The Romans would later call her Venus.) Aphrodite could overwhelm mere mortals with her immense power and take control of their lives by overriding both common sense and conscience. In one legendary case, a handsome Trojan prince named Paris fell in love with a beautiful Spartan queen named Helen, and she with him, the very first time they saw each other. The only problem was that Helen was already married. When the two lovers sailed away together to Troy, Helen’s husband assembled an armada to bring his wife back home – leading the Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe (1604) later to remark that Helen’s was "the face that launch’d a thousand ships." A war ensued that lasted ten years, and the epic poems that war inspired – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – would endure forever. As Naumann’s (2001) survey reveals, Aphrodite is alive and well today, still wielding her power over our lives.

Greek religion aside, how can we explain Helen and Paris’ attraction for each other? According to legend, Paris was a divinely handsome hero, and Helen the most beautiful woman in all the world, so perhaps it was their extraordinary looks that drew them together. But in saying that, we’d have to admit simultaneously that not every Dick or Jack is as dashing as Paris, nor every Jane or Jill as stunning as Helen. Though beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, the fact that ordinary Dicks and Janes, or Jacks and Jills, fall hopelessly in love the moment they see each other suggests that something other than simple aesthetics is at work. If so, what could that mysterious "something" be?

That Fabulous Face


If Helen had "the face that launch’d a thousand ships," maybe we should start with the human face in our quest for an answer. After all, when people meet, their faces are what they see first. Because of the multiple components that make up the human face and together give it its distinctiveness, our face is the one part of our body that, more than any other, expresses our personal identity. For that reason, the face is the image pressed with affection into so many leather wallets and echoed with passion in the lyrics of so many love songs.

But what is there about a face that could make it so hypnotically appealing? One nose, two lips, two eyes – are such physical features sufficient in and of themselves to induce us to surrender our will and cosmically link our life with that of another human being? The answer seems to be yes, according to the findings of investigators.

The first striking phenomenon about faces and love is that so many people who are in love look alike, more so than chance would allow, and this has been documented empirically (Chambers, Christiansen, & Kunz, 1983Griffiths & Kunz, 1973Hinsz, 1989). Recently, Alvarez and Jaffe (2004) photographed 36 randomly selected couples and divided the photographs into six groups. Then, after cutting the pictures from each group in two, shuffling them, and placing them on a table, they invited a panel of neutral judges to match up the correct sexual partners in each group. The experiment was conducted as a double-blind test with neither the judges nor their supervisors knowing the right answers in advance.

According to chance, the judges should have averaged one correct match for every set of six pictures, about the same as guessing what double number would come up when a pair of dice is rolled. But instead of averaging one right match out of six, the judges got almost two out of six right each time. The close resemblances between sexual partners applied equally to those who were good-looking and to those who were not. In fact, the judges did well even when they were shown only the noses, eyes, or mouths of the test subjects. In short, the study seems to demonstrate that facial resemblances between romantic partners are significantly higher than mere chance would suggest.

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