"What destroyed me was the 'yes' you had in your eyes when you met my gaze," wrote and sang Arik Einstein, and he was, of course, not the only one to praise love at first sight.
This feeling—of walking into a room, identifying new yet familiar eyes within seconds, sinking into them and immediately feeling as if you two are the only people in the room, with an instant yet deep connection—is a bit like coming home.
It may sound like the start of a romantic novel with no bearing on our gritty, cynical reality, but somehow, and seemingly without any logical explanation, nearly 60% of the population report that they are intimately familiar with these feelings because they, too, have fallen in love at first sight.
One can continue to belittle love at first sight, argue that it's overly romantic and juvenile, and mainly dismiss it as mere sexual attraction, but according to research and experts, not only is love at first sight alive and kicking among us, but it can also serve as a good springboard for a serious relationship.
"One cannot dismiss love at first sight for the simple reason that it has been expressed in so many works, across so many cultures and over the years. It's even mentioned in the Torah, with Jacob falling in love with Rachel, so it must have some significance," argues Aharon Ben-Ze'ev, a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa.
Isn't it essentially just a cultural expression of desire? "Love at first sight is love, not just sexual attraction. When it comes to attraction, traits don't matter. You can be attracted to someone whose traits you don't even know or don't consider important. In love at first sight, however, there are both main aspects that characterize love: attraction, which is sexual but not only, and a positive evaluation of the person's overall traits."
But there's a small and peripheral detail: we still don't know the traits. "Some traits can be identified at first sight, and for others, we make assumptions. You could say it's not deep love because it's not based on traits that can't be seen immediately, but appearances do have a significant impact on what we think about people."
Indeed, according to studies, we judge the character of the person standing in front of us within a tenth of a second. Even after a few minutes pass, the judgment itself won't change—however, our level of confidence in our conclusions will increase.
"It's easiest to see how this immediate judgment plays out in the case of attractive people. They receive more privileges and advantages throughout their lives, and we also attribute positive character traits to them—they're considered to be smarter, more talented, more generous,” he says.
‘There's an American study that shows that among those who completed business studies, the taller and more attractive individuals received higher salaries in the year following their graduation. In courtrooms, attractive people receive lighter sentences than less attractive people. They've even proven that parents hold more attractive children longer than less attractive ones. This is also the reason why more men report experiencing love at first sight; they place greater weight on the external appearance of their partner.
"So, of course, love at first sight is primarily directed towards attractive people, and it reflects what is known as 'the halo effect'—the fact that someone who is beautiful is also perceived to possess other good qualities. But this only demonstrates that love at first sight doesn't arise solely because of physical appearance, but also because of other traits that we project onto the object of our affection."
Not only attractive people get to be loved within minutes. Research indicates our tendency to fall in love with people who are similar to us or to our parents, because they provide us with a sense of familiarity and stability that we can rely on—that same "coming home" feeling that many describe in the context of love at first sight. Alongside this, there are additional biases that automatically link in our minds to character traits: for example, height or a beard in men make us think that the person in front of us is more trustworthy (and perhaps that's why U.S. presidents who were elected were always taller than their competitors)."
Can such love, built on the projection of traits in an essentially unfounded way, lead to a genuine relationship? "There are conflicting studies on the ability of love at first sight to predict long-term relationships. There are cases where such love develops into very deep relationships, and there are cases where it lasts for a short time. It mainly depends on the ability to identify character traits—if the identification is successful, then you have a 'bingo' here."
But what are the chances of such a 'bingo'? After all, we are necessarily idealizing, and only with time do we remember that no one is perfect. "That's true, but there are studies that say that positive illusions are very important for the development of love over time, even more so than other things. It's the best predictor for the continuity of love relationships. The question is also the degree, of course."
A study conducted in China and published in 2019 found that, contrary to popular belief, higher levels of positive illusions between couples at the beginning of a relationship were associated with a decrease in the risk of relationship dissolution later on, as well as higher levels of satisfaction and fewer conflicts or doubts in relationships.
According to Prof. Ben-Ze'ev, the reason for this is clear. "If the idealization is far removed from reality, then that's indeed a problem. But if it's more moderate idealization, then the overall positive view allows for coping with the negative aspects that will emerge later on.
For example, someone might say her husband is wonderful even if he is chronically late or disorganized. The negative trait takes on less weight when the overall picture is rosy. In love at first sight, the initial overall evaluation is wonderful, and then optimism provides the tools for achieving higher-quality relationships over time. It's not like you're throwing something into the air and the odds are it will be wrong. In this case, the odds are that there really is something there."
Could the projection of traits be based on memory? We see someone who reminds us of someone close to us and automatically attribute to them the same traits? "Correct, and that's less promising for ensuring a quality, long-lasting relationship, as it's really based on random resemblance. Although there might also be types of facial expressions that allow us to identify traits, and those we do recognize. Ultimately, the importance of first impressions for a long-term relationship is in the starting point they provide— and it's very significant."
Prof Ben-Ze'ev emphasizes and reminds us that studies (like that of Sunfrank and Ramirez from 2004) have shown that relationships that started with higher mutual esteem and greater enthusiasm managed to last longer compared to those that started in a relatively lukewarm manner.
"We'll never manage to surpass the excitement ceiling of the 'honeymoon' phase at the beginning of a relationship, but we can get close, and therefore the starting point is very important— and the starting point of love at first sight is excellent. If the potential you identified at the beginning is realized, then there's a high likelihood that it will be a strong love over time."
According to Prof. Ben-Ze'ev, if it's love that doesn't just ignite at first sight, but already in the first meeting that also includes conversation, you're already halfway to the ring. "When there's not just a look but also conversation, you can identify deeper traits, and if it's love from the first chat, that's even better, because more traits are revealed. Even if incorrect pictures appear in apps, or no pictures at all, if there's interaction and intellectual conversation (which must emerge due to the format of the writing), then there's better information, and the love is more grounded.
"There's a saying that goes, 'You never get a second chance to make a first impression'— and that's the whole story," he concludes. "There's weight to what happens in the beginning, to how it starts. I'm not saying it can't fail, on the contrary— it can very much fail, but if you have the eyes to discern traits from the first meeting, a kind of intuition, that can be a good starting point that will determine the success of the relationship in the long run."