Find a comfortable spot, and start answering! (Photo: Getty Images)
One lab. Two people. Forty-five minutes. Thirty-six questions. Four minutes of gazing into each other’s eyes… and one deep, lasting connection.
Admittedly, it sounds like a ridiculous recipe for falling in love. But could it actually work? Well, according to research conducted more than 15 years ago by Arthur Aron, PhD, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, it did work.
In a new New York Times “Modern Love” essay, University of British Columbia writing professor Mandy Len Catron recalls having heard about the 1997 research of Aron, who successfully threw 52 sets of male and female strangers and 19 sets of all-female strangers together in a lab and caused them to grow significantly closer by way of the equation noted above.
The method was simple: Over the course of 45 minutes, Aron had his subjects ask each other 36 questions (full list below!). Each one gets progressively more personal, beginning with, “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” before probing under the surface into treasured memories, deepest wishes, the state of the other person’s relationship with Mom, even the role of love and affection in the other person’s life.
At the end of the session, Aron had each pair stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes. At the end of the study, according to his research, the duos had grown significantly closer. And at the end of six months, one male-female couple had fallen in love and gotten married.
Which brings us back to Catron. One night over drinks at a bar with a male acquaintance, her companion made an interesting observation about relationships: “I suspect, given a few commonalities, you could fall in love with anyone. If so, how do you choose someone?
Catron, of course, remembered Aron’s research and the weird effect of creating conscious connection with another person. She asked her friend if he wanted to test it out. They spent two hours posing Aron’s questions to each other via iPhone, before ending the evening gazing into each other’s eyes on a bridge.
The research seemed to work for Catron, too, who fell in love with her 36-question companion.
What’s going on? Probably a few things at once, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. If there’s basic physical attraction there, he says, it is possible to generate connection with just about anyone.
“It’s about creating the opportunity,” Markman tells Yahoo Health. “With the conversational aspect, there’s research showing that thinking fast creates positive feelings in us. And since we wouldn’t often assume quick thinking would produce these feelings, we assign them to something else. The logical thing is the person across the table from you, with whom you’re having a conversation.”
The feelings you have when you’re with a person are important, but the content of the conversation here also deepens the bond. “With this research, it’s almost like hypnosis in a way,” says Markman. “The questions start and are really innocuous, but they slowly get more personal, and you have to start lowering your defenses.” This is something Catron mentions in her essay; the slip into murkier waters happened so slowly, she didn’t notice until she was already in deep territory with her partner.
To go along with strong conversational draws, Markman also bets there’s a nice shot of oxytocin when two people stare into each other’s eyes for some time and truly settle into that gaze. “You’re creating positive feelings and trust there,” he explains.
This willingness to let your guard down (and actively dig beneath a partner’s surface) also seems to indicate a real decision. You can choose to know someone deeply and truly in order to generate feelings of love. It is less a matter of accidentally “falling” in love.
“What I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action,” Catron writes. “It assumes that what matters to my partner matters to me because we have at least three things in common, because we have close relationships with our mothers, and because he let me look at him.”
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Ultimately, creating connection is all about allowing someone else to see a side of you that others normally do not — to get truly (frighteningly) close. “If you think about falling in love, it’s really a willingness to lower barriers that normally inhibit us from getting to know each other,” Markman explains. “When you do, now you can create a bond.”
Want to test it yourself? Find a comfortable spot, settle in with someone you’d like to get closer with, and get started answering these questions from Arthur Aron's study, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure And Some Preliminary Findings.
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a perfect day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…”
26. Complete this sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them: Be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
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