Helen Fisher, PhD

Rise above your nature and take a second look

We now know what happens in the brain when you first meet someone new:  two small factories that lie behind your forehead leap into action.   One brain region tries to decide if this person is physically attractive enough, ie sexy enough, to be an acceptable partner in your bed.  The second brain region tries to establish whether this individual is likeable, not likeable in a general way, but likeable to you.

But if this neural circuitry initially evolved millions of years ago as an effective way to size up a potential partner, it’s not necessarily useful in our modern world.   Our ancestral forebears traveled the plains of Africa in small extended family bands and regularly met familiar friends and relatives.   Today, however, these vast community networks are disappearing.   And most of the potential partners we meet are unfamiliar, even strange.   So in our modern clime, these primitive brain circuits are likely to shout “NO WAY,” long before you can realistically appraise a potential mate.  

To make the process of mate selection even trickier, when you first meet someone new, you have very little data about him or her.   So one tends to overweigh these few nuggets of information.  His somewhat-crooked teeth might be far less important to you if you also knew he was a brilliant professor, a billionaire, a famous musician, or had other qualities you wanted in a mate.   First impressions aren’t complete.  And your primitive brain circuits are likely to respond negatively to this paltry set of initial facts, casting out what could have been a soul mate.   

So I have an immodest proposal:  In the classic movie, The African Queen, Katherine Hepburn says to Humphrey Boggart, “Nature, Mr. Alnutt, is something we were put on this earth to rise above.”  Not everything we lug around in our brain is useful in today’s social atmosphere.  So unless these brain regions instantly tell you this individual has absolutely no sex appeal for you, and his/her personality is equally unappealing, try to rise above your heritage.  Data show that the more you interact with someone, the more you regard him or her as good looking, interesting, smart and similar to yourself.   The better you like them, too.   Indeed, in our annual Match.com survey of Singles in America, we found that some 35% of men and women eventually fell in love with someone they didn’t initially find attractive.  

So quiet those little voices in your head–and take a second look.