What if you could fall in love with anyone, anywhere, anytime? Well, according to Mandy Len Catron’s article “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” from January of this year, it only takes 36 particular questions to get you where you want to be. Officially titled The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings, the study of the 36 questions, written by renowned psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron and his colleagues, has been claimed to be the magical formula that can make any two strangers fall in love.
Here’s how it goes: A heterosexual man and woman enter a room, where they are given a list of 36 questions, divided into three sets. The strangers alternate answering the questions, each set of which is comprised of questions that become increasingly more personal throughout. To close off the 45 minutes of answering questions, the partners stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes – in silence.
Aron’s experiment effected incredible success: every participant left the room feeling very closely bonded with his or her partner, and two participants even married only six months following the experiment. This, inevitably, left many considering the study as an assured, method for anyone to fall in love with anyone else. Indeed, Catron’s essay in the popular New York Times “Modern Love” column and her love story can easily make readers create the illusion that it is in fact a recipe for love. After all, she and her husband were strangers before they tried the 36 Questions.
Nevertheless, the study was originally designed to study closeness without mixing it up with factors such as “who chose to be with whom, or the history of the relationship,” according to Dr. Elaine Aron. In other words, the Arons and their colleagues wanted to better understand human interpersonal closeness and how to accomplish this on demand. But there are, of course, traits of love that cannot be established given only 45 minutes. While both participants of the experiment and Aron acknowledge that the closeness produced in his studies are in many ways similar to that in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time, “it seems unlikely that the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop” (Aron, Arthur).
So, what is the psychology behind the instantaneous “love” and interpersonal closeness formed during the experiment? Given that participants of the closeness-generating paradigm are already willing to make an effort, the main reason it works with almost anyone is that it immediately brings a sense of intimacy usually within one hour, making the strangers see one another exactly as who they are. The process is so quick, yet so probing that the mutual vulnerability of each partner fosters closeness. Catron uses the boiling frog experiment as an analogy to explain how it works: “[T]he frog doesn’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late,” she says. “With us, because the level of vulnerability increased gradually, I didn’t notice we had entered intimate territory until we were already there, a process that can typically take weeks or months.”
Additionally, the content of the questions, along with the final four-minute staring exercise, add to the favorable results of the generation of affinity. The questions start out simple, revealing each other’s personalities on the surface. However, as the experiment proceeds, they become increasingly disclosing, adding depth to the bond and lowering both partners’ guards whilst the exchange of answers that build trust. The ultimate stage – four minutes of staring in silence – at the very end makes the partners even more vulnerable, yet attached to one another. Though “less documented” (Jones), the final step definitely allows in the strongest bit of the mental and emotional chemistry of any pair, whose relationship additionally requires physical chemistry to fall in love (Daniels).
On the whole, by creating interpersonal closeness in a matter of minutes, Aron’s study successfully makes two strangers generate intimacy, which often leads to love. The experiment, though commonly perceived as a formula for falling in love, essentially serves as a prerequisite for any two strangers to become close friends and, at its best, to fall in love. Catron finally adds, “Arthur Aron’s study taught me that it’s possible — simple, even — to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive.”
Would you like to try it? Instructions are here: http://36questionsinlove.com/
Aron, Arthur, Elaine. “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings.”
Catron, Mandy Len. “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.”
Daniels, Samantha. “Can 36 Questions Create Closeness Between Strangers? Take the Quiz”
Jones, Daniel. “No. 37: Big Wedding or Small?”