In 1997, Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychologist from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, published a seminal paper in which he devised an experiment to create closeness in strangers. His previous research had been dedicated to comparing the social psychology of individuals in and not in close relationships, as well as the social psychology of individuals in relationships with varying degrees of intimacy. This study, however, was completely different. Rather than monitoring how intimacy impacted the social environment that the couple shared, Dr. Aron attempted to create a degree of intimacy between strangers.
Defined as degrees of “interpersonal closeness,” the experiment was relatively straightforward. Undergraduate students in a large psychology course volunteered to participate and filled out initial questionnaires. Based upon their responses, individuals were paired and given a list of questions to ask their new partner. In the control group, the questions were deemed “small talk” and consisted entirely of queries such as “Describe the last time you went to the zoo” or “Were you ever in a school play?”
However, for the study group, the questions initially were relatively mundane, such as “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” The questions progressed to in-depth, personal requests such as “Tell you partner something you like about them already” or “If your house spontaneously caught fire, what item would you run back in to save?” Questions were asked in a particular order, without skipping, systematically leading participants through relatively boring questions to those that provoked highly intimate responses.
After the 36 questions were asked, all students took a final questionnaire; this time to measure their perceived “closeness” with their partner. The scale was out of seven, with one being “Not very much” and seven being “Very much.” Those students who asked in-depth personal questions reported feeling “closer” to their partner than those students who asked “small talk” questions. Dr. Aron had essentially found a way to create intimacy amongst strangers through self-disclosure. He postulated that this reciprocal disclosure of personal experiences could be more important in forming relationships than common interests or even pheromones.
The original article was published in 1997. While it may have been integral to the field of interpersonal psychology (the paper has been cited nearly 300 times), the media didn’t latch on to the idea until 2015. Aron is a giant in the field of interpersonal relationships, having been cited over 14,000 times over the course of his 45-year career. He developed the Self-Expansion Model of Motivation in Interpersonal Relationships, which examines how our relationships with others mold who we are as a person. And yet even his impressive credentials didn’t lead to widespread knowledge of his contributions until 18 years after publication!
Finally, in early 2015, the media picked up this study. Only this time it sported a shiny new title. “36 Questions to Make Anyone Fall in Love with You!” read the headlines. Newspapers nationwide hailed Dr. Aron’s work as the way to “lead to love between strangers.”
This study, and the subsequent (although belated) media coverage, shows how science is not always translated effectively by popular media outlets. Aron and his team never sought, or indeed achieved, love in this experiment. In the published article, Aron asks readers “So are we producing real closeness? Yes and no.” He follows by stating that “We think the closeness produced in these studies is experienced as similar in many important ways to felt closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time.” In essence, what they did in the lab was not really different than how people date in the real world; the researchers simply sped up the process.
Imagine you meet someone at a bar and you share a drink. It is highly unlikely that you are going to ask something as personal as “What is your relationship like with your mother?” In today’s world of impersonal texting, Tinder, and instant messaging, questions like this would take weeks, if not months or even years, to be discussed in a standard relationship setting (probably right before you’re introduced to your significant other’s mother, for instance). Dr. Aron didn’t create love, loyalty or commitment in his subjects, he simply had the test subjects learn about each other’s personal lives quickly. And thus, closeness was born. And closeness is a very different thing from love.
But unfortunately it doesn’t make as enticing a headline.
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- Would you like to be famous? In what way?
- Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
- What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
- When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
- If you were able to live to the age of90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
- Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
- Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
- If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
- Take 4 minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
- If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
- If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
- What do you value most in a friendship?
- What is your most treasured memory?
- What is your most terrible memory?
- If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
- What does friendship mean to you?
- What roles do love and affection play in your life?
- Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of 5 items.
- How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
- How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
- Make 3 true “we” statements each. For instance ‘We are both in this room feeling… “
- Complete this sentence: ‘I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
- If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
- Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
- When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
- Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
- What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
- 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?
- 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?
- Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
- 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.