The magic of the seventh second

Science tells us that it takes only seven seconds for us to decide whether somebody is boyfriend or girlfriend material. For me this is a fact that is hard to digest: How can a possibly life-changing decision be made upon a vague and highly superficial impression of a human being, whose character is composed of a multitude of interests, opinions and experiences?

After pondering this question for a while I realized that – being a hopeless romantic – my train of thoughts had a major flaw: The seven-second-phenomenon is not about the character of a person, it’s not about what somebody thinks or does or loves. It’s quite the opposite – a rough assessment of a person’s appearance based on the most primal instincts that have been governing our brain since the stone age. In those seven seconds we form an opinion about the looks of a person (“Is she hot?”), about the level of self-confidence and impact on others a person has (“Could she as my girlfriend enhance my self-worth as well as the way others perceive me?”) and about how “available” a person is (“What would it take to get her to go home with me?”). If what we perceive in this first impression of somebody leads to satisfactory answers for our inner questionnaire (with a special focus on the hotness factor, obviously) our brain seems to tick a little checkbox that is labeled “This could be my future girlfriend”. So what do we make of this regarding our day-to-day dating routine?

It was pointed out to me recently that the app Tinder perfectly picks up on the implications of the seven-second phenomenon. What might seem superficial (Is her photo hot? – No, I’ll just swipe to the next one) is essentially a technical implementation of what our brain does anyway. It’s an assessment of a person based on a minimum of criteria, except for the fact that we pick up on some body language clues in the real world as well. So why have I always been so upset about apps like Tinder, when all they do is provide an efficient platform to act out on our most basic instincts?

I guess I am missing the magic of it all. Having to accept that everything that becomes less important in a long-term relationship (looks, self-confidence, being easy to get) is what counts when it comes to falling in love is hard and strikes me somehow as illogical.

Sure, being asked whether I have ever fallen in love with somebody who did not appeal to me at first glance I had to think hard. But there were people who did certainly not make the cut during the first seven seconds. It’s usually the more quiet ones, the ones that do not stick out in a crowd but thrive when you are one on one, who become appealing at second glance. And it also works the other way around: People who seemed great at first turned out to be horrible after the first date. So how much can we really rely on those seven seconds, when we are looking for more than a one night stand?

I have to admit, the last major crush I had, had been a crush from the first second on – although our first encounter happened on the phone and in an environment that could not have been less flirty. According to science the most important factor for assessing this person was missing (the looks!) but I enjoyed getting to know him in kind of the wrong order: voice first, writing second, looks last. I can’t say how I would have reacted if his looks had turned me off, but I am sure that, having fallen for his personality already, the pressure on an appealing outer appearance was reduced. Through this gradual immersion into a state of being in love I learned that we can stretch out the magic of falling for somebody to more than seven seconds; that we can oppose ourselves to the fast-forward dating culture brought to us by Tinder – if we want to. And maybe things last longer if we take more time and effort to get to know somebody.

Maybe it’s worth to keep counting after the seventh second.

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