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A fundamental attribution error: Love at first sight

Posted on February 13, 2011 by jim.

With love at first sight, the beloved’s personality simply exists at the time any associated brain-directed behavior is manifest. The behavior is manifest as a response to the external situation that involves the beloved.

The fundamental attribution error is a common type of mental bias in social psychology. The error involves placing a heavy emphasis on internal personality characteristics that are used to explain someone’s behavior in a given situation, rather than thinking about external situational factors. The biological basis for the development of internal personality is not detailed.

Another side of this error is observer bias. People who observe others, even actors, tend to over-emphasize the role either of a staged, or of a real situation in behaviors. They focus on the social construct that involves the actors. At the same time they under-emphasize the role of their own observer-biased personalities. The actions of others who are observed then become categorized as if they were actions that depend on the observer’s personality. The observed actions no longer depend on the personality of the individual.

The observer may be happy, sad, angry, or exhibit whatever emotions are appropriate for the socially constructed situation, even when the situation involves actors. If ever you have cried during a sad movie, you provide your own example of this side of the fundamental attribution error. Although the movie may be both entertaining and sad, you know that your crying is blatantly ridiculous, because you know it’s only a movie.

Social psychologists or observers who are out of touch with biologically-based reality, and who report on love at first sight, will almost invariably report that it exists among everyone because they truly believe they fell in love at the first sight of his spouse. An observer could no more acknowledge the biological basis for his development into someone who could love another person, than he would acknowledge that there is no biological basis for visual perceived physical attraction in any non-human animal species.

Visually perceived physical attraction is conditioned to olfactory/pheromonal input in other animal species. The human observer’s mental ability is thereby limited by his ignorance of biologically based facts and his feelings, which are unknowingly but somehow typically associated with the love of the opposite sex. He is not capable of effectively reasoning that his feelings could not exist unless his visual perception was developmentally paired with a hormone response conditioned by olfactory input from the social environment. A social environment contains at least one member of the same species. In this case, it is the person he fell in love with at first sight.

Irrational observers who believe in love at first sight are less likely to make such a fundamental attribution error in any other context. They do not hate someone at first sight, for example. If they find that they have developed an aversion associated with another person, they can probably detail good reasons for their dislike. Often, this is not total dislike; it is relative to liking or loving someone else who was not loved at first sight.

One need only compare the likes and dislikes of different foods with love at first sight to gain insight on the biological basis of love, and begin to better recognize the fundamental attribution error when you see it. Whether you like, love, dislike, or hate a particular food item, your feelings about it have developed through association with its chemical appeal.

Food chemicals cause changes in hormones of the body that allow you to directly associate food with what you see. Experiments have shown that you see what you smell.

Other mammals perceive erotic odors and food odors in precisely the same manner, which helps to establish the use of animal models to illustrate our human response to erotic imagery, or to the visual appeal of a potential mate. Other animals do not respond to pictures of food. And sexually naïve animals do not respond to pictures of a potential mate, just as most animals could care less about how another animal looks. A potential mate only becomes interesting due to odor associations that begin at birth.

These associations are with social odors called pheromones, and they can be compared to associations with food odors. However, there are sex differences in pheromones and sex differences in the conditioned responses we associated with them. It is this type of association that makes people believe that they either can fall in love, or that they did fall in love at first sight, when all they can do is respond or not to mixtures of human pheromones. This response is so animalistic that many people would rather not think about it (and don’t).

Happy Valentine’s Day whether or not you believe in human pheromones or love at first sight. In either case, we see what we smell.



Retired medical laboratory scientist

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James Kohl owns, and he has published books and award-winning research journal articles about human pheromones. With colleagues he was the first to show that a mixture of human pheromones increases the flirtatious behaviors of women, and increases their level of attraction to the man wearing the mixture - during a real-life social circumstance lasting 15 minutes.

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