Love at first sight illustration by Brett Ryder
Illustration: Brett Ryder
How fast can you really size up a partner?
You walk into a party and head for the bar. Suddenly someone is beside you, offering to get you a drink. You begin to talk. Almost immediately you're struck by the eerie feeling that you may have just found Mr. Right. But that's crazy, isn't it? Or is it? Can a person really know something this life-changing so fast?

Yes. We are built to instantly size up a potential partner, an intuitive skill that likely developed millions of years ago as our forebears struggled to rapidly sort friends from enemies. And while today we may not need to protect ourselves with a strong, virile mate, we regularly make up our minds about whether an individual could be an appropriate match within the first three minutes of talking to him (or her).

Indeed, it takes less than one second to decide whether you find someone physically attractive. Too short, too tall, too old, too young, too scruffy, or too scrubbed—he's out. If, however, he fits your general concept of Adonis, your mind races toward the next checkpoint: voice. Once again, you respond in seconds. Women typically regard rapid talkers as more educated and men with full, deep voices as better-looking than they are. Next: his words. We like people who use the same kinds of words we use. We are also drawn to those who have a similar degree of intelligence, share our religious and social values, and come from the same economic background—and we quickly determine these attributes from a man's words (not to mention how he dresses and wears his hair, whether he's carrying a briefcase or a soccer ball, and if he's sporting a gold watch or a tattoo).

But can this handsome, deep-voiced, well-dressed stranger give you what you need? Even on the bigger questions, we often form an opinion within the first three minutes if the conversation turns to, say, politics or kids. So when you do feel an immediate click, go ahead and trust your instincts.

Still, love at first sight doesn't happen to everyone. In one survey by Ayala Malach-Pines, PhD, of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, only 11 percent of the 493 respondents said their long-term relationships started that way. As for the rest of us? Psychologists say that the more you interact with a person you like (even slightly), the more you come to regard him as good-looking, smart, and similar to you—unless you discover something that breaks the spell. So it's wise to hang in for a second meeting. It can take years sometimes for two people to fully appreciate each other. But whether it's love at first sight or love in hindsight, those first three minutes are essential for romance.

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