Loathe at first sight can turn into love
First impressions are crucial, perhaps never more so than when it comes to romance.
Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30
We all know how quickly first impressions are made. Whether it's a job applicant at an interview or a stranger at a party, we make our minds up about people within seconds of meeting them. So first impressions are crucial, perhaps never more so than when it comes to romance.
Romantic love is often characterised as striking like a lightning bolt, a sudden and immediate connection based on physical attraction and instant chemistry. The idea of eyes meeting across a crowded room, leading to a whirlwind romance is very exciting, and is a staple of romantic books and films.
So we have high expectations of feeling an instant connection with a potential partner.
Only it doesn't always happen that way, in life or in art.
'First Impressions' was the original title of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', one of the best-loved romance novels of all time. Yet Darcy and Elizabeth's initial impressions of each other are far from promising, and the novel is the story of how they overcome their initial dislike and indifference, and gradually fall in love.
If they had adhered to their first impressions, they would never have made it past chapter one – and some real-life couples wouldn't have even got as far as a first date.
My friend Keris has been happily married to David for almost 18 years. But she certainly wasn't bowled over when they first met. In fact, she thought he was a "rude git". "He totally blanked me repeatedly. Eventually, I realised he was shy, and socially awkward. After knowing him for quite a while we finally had a conversation – about books – and then after about a year we got drunk, got together and got engaged."
David didn't like her at first either, but like Darcy and Elizabeth, their relationship was able to develop because they were subsequently thrown together on numerous occasions. They had the opportunity to get to know each other better, recognise where they had misjudged each other, and come to a better understanding and appreciation of each other.
But what if (as is often the case) we cross paths with potential partners at parties or in bars and we don't have time to get to know them properly? We only have a short time to decide if we ever want to see them again, so the first impressions we make during these fleeting encounters are all we have to go on.
The chances of success at finding a suitable partner in this way seem remote, but in fact the quick decisions we make on the spur of the moment aren't as haphazard and unreliable as they may appear.
In his best-selling book, 'Thinking, Fast and Slow', Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman characterises the kinds of thinking we use to form first impressions as fast, instinctive, emotional and automatic, and says the snap judgments we make in this way are often remarkably accurate.
We are intuitive beings and our brains have developed the ability to process a lot of information subconsciously in order to decide if someone is friendly or hostile, and whether it is safe to interact with them or if they pose a threat. It's a survival mechanism that has never left us, and in most cases, it serves us well and our confidence in our impressions and feelings is justified.
Another friend's first impressions proved right when she first spotted her partner Jim in a poster on the wall of her local chip shop. She said it was love at first sight.
This sort of intuition that feels almost like a 'sixth sense' can seem magical, but may have a more mundane explanation. According to Kahneman, there is nothing mystical about accurate intuition. Our brains are simply picking up on cues and accessing information in our memories, all on a subconscious level.
But reliable as our intuition often is, Kahneman says it is also prone to bias, leading to errors of judgment. One such bias of intuition is what is known as the 'halo effect', which simply put is the tendency to like or dislike everything about a person, including things we haven't perceived, based on our initial instinctive response to them.
So if you find someone attractive and confident, you might also decide that they are intelligent and kind, even though you have no evidence for believing this. The halo effect increases the importance of first impressions, predisposing us to like or dislike a person based on very little actual evidence.
Prejudice caused by reliance on stereotypes can also influence our first impressions. For example, if someone is introduced to you as an accountant, you might form some idea of what kind of person they are before you even properly meet – and it will probably be quite different to the opinion you'd form if the same person was introduced as an artist.
The belief that we have a 'type' can lead us astray too, causing us to quickly dismiss someone if they don't conform to our notion of our ideal partner.
Sometimes sparks fly at first meeting and then fizzle out. Sometimes they just take time to get fired up. But whether falling in love comes as a bolt from the blue or is more of a slow-burning affair, it always feels a bit like magic when it does happen.
Best-selling author Clodagh Murphy's latest book, 'Some Girls Do', is out now in paperback. Published by Hachette Books Ireland