Love at First Sight: New Research on Who's Attracted to Whom

The idea of love at first sight holds perennial appeal to the romantic in all of us. It’s fun to fantasize over whether you’ll be lovestruck “across a crowded room,” as the song goes. Will you and the “stranger in the night,” to reference another well-known ballad, become each other’s own true love?  The premise that you can tell at a glance who you’re destined to spend your life with underlies the speed-dating phenomenon. Whereas in the past you might have had the chance to scan the crowd at a cocktail party, you can now cut to the chase with venues whose sole purpose is to give you a chance to find instant love. Compared to online dating services, the in-person varieties also allow you to get a sense of whether you and your potential romantic partners seem to have good chemistry. 

For relationship scientists, speed-dating sites offer the perfect lab for understanding the process of romantic attraction. La Trobe University’s Christopher Pepping and colleagues (2017) took their theories into this particular type of lab in examining the role of attachment style in romantic attraction. The Australian researchers also chose to compare people of Chinese background with those of Western ancestry to see whether there would be differences in attachment style and attraction based on cultural background. 

In attachment theory, people are classified according to the way they think about their closest relationships. Those who are securely attached, in this framework, are reasonably balanced between wanting closeness and allowing distance with their intimate partners. The anxiously attached, in contrast, fear abandonment. Those who are avoidant in their attachment style prefer to remain at a distance from others. Cultural factors could interact with attachment style, the Pepping et al. team proposed, because those of Chinese ancestry, in contrast to Westerners, would be less bothered by a partner who is concerned about being alone and in need of constant reassurance. As they state, such a need for closeness “may reflect the inter-dependence, mutual obligation, and close connection to family that characterizes collectivist cultures” (p. 81). Furthermore, earlier studies showed that Chinese individuals may also be less put off by an avoidant partner because, to some extent, avoidant attachment is part of a Chinese romantic ideal.  In summary, the preference seen in Western writing toward the secure attachment style might not match the reality of life for those of different cultural heritage.

The 93 participants were roughly equally divided proportionately into male vs. female and Chinese-vs. Western ancestry, Each participant completed an attachment style questionnaire prior to entering the room where they engaged in the simulated speed-dating scenario with 8 partners for 3 minutes each. Following this session, each participant rated the degree to which they felt romantically attracted to each partner. The romantic attraction scale included sexual attraction (“How sexy is this person?”) and general attraction (“Is this the type of person you would like to get to know better?”).  The beauty of this design was that the actual attachment style of the participants was known because both sets of partners completed their own attachment style questionnaire. It was therefore possible to tell who was high in attachment avoidance and anxiety rather than having participants guess at or rate the attachment style of their partners.

As you might expect, physical attractiveness also becomes part of the lure that leads someone to seem like a good potential romantic partner in a speed-dating situation.  Pepping and his team used photos that they took of each participant which were rated by two independent researchers on a 1 (extremely unattractive) to 9 (extremely attractive) scale.

Overall, women reported that they were moderately attracted to the men they met (scoring 36 out of a possible 72); men were slightly more attracted to the women (scoring 40 out of 72).  As one might expect, men’s attraction to women reflected more heavily their physical attractiveness than did women’s attraction to men. In fact, attractiveness was the only characteristic of women that predicted whether men would be attracted to them; attachment style had no effect on attraction for men. Overall, ancestry played no role in overall attraction ratings that potential partners felt toward each other.  

Attachment style did figure into the ratings that women had of their male partners. Across cultures, women were not attracted to men if either they, or their male partners, were avoidantly attached. Apparently, people who are avoidant of close relationships might as well stay away from speed-dating situations.  As the authors concluded, “It seems likely that attachment avoidance may undermine the quality of these initial interactions due to reduced engagement and personal disclosure” (p. 83).

For attachment anxiety, a different picture emerged, one in which cultural heritage played a role. Women of Western heritage didn’t discriminate in their attraction to men based on how anxious they were about close relationships. Women of Chinese heritage, by contrast, were significantly less attracted to men low in their own attachment anxiety; they were about equal to Western heritage women in their attraction to men high in attachment anxiety.

To explain this finding of cultural differences in attraction of women to men high in attachment anxiety, the authors reasoned that “attachment anxiety is … associated with processes that, in certain contexts, may be adaptive” (p. 84). In Chinese culture, it may be considered a sign of sensitivity of the man in the early moments of a relationship to “focus on the needs and reactions of the other person” (p. 84).

Whether two people will fall in love at first sight, or at least be attracted to each other, seems from the Australian study, to be a matter of gender, culture, attractiveness, and personality.  Men across the two cultures studied here were most attracted to women high in physical attractiveness regardless of their own or the women’s personalities. For women, a male partner who seems distant and remote in the first few moments of an interaction will be perceived as less romantically attractive. If a woman is of Chinese heritage (at least in this study of Australian college students), a man who seems tuned in to the feelings and thoughts of others will hold more appeal than one who seems secure in his own sense of himself and his relationships.

In summary, love at first sight may not predict whether a relationship will flourish and grow over time. We don’t know if, even for those who prefer a potential partner who seems a bit anxious, the ultimate relationship that develops will be a solid one. Those anxiously attached men may become, over time, less attractive to their partners due to their need for constant reassurance. However, from this very interesting study, we can conclude that even in a few brief moments, the framework of a relationship begins to take shape, possibly influencing both partners for years to come.

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