In one of the most-read New York Times ‘Modern Love’ pieces of all time, writer Mandy Len Catron shared her experience of taking a study on deepening connections between strangers out of the lab and into a bar.
The experiment, originally run by psychologist Arthur Aron, has two people sit close together, exchange answers to 36 increasingly probing questions, and make eye contact for two to four minutes. The idea is that vulnerability fosters intimacy. Aron put forth that a key pattern in developing close relationships is “sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure”—a slipping of the mask, to paraphrase Tom Stoppard. Participants indeed reported feeling more intensely attracted to each other at the end of the experiment, with one pair eventually marrying.
So Catron set out to try it out with an acquaintance one evening. “We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances,” she writes, “but Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative.” While they start out rather Proustian (‘what do you value most in a friendship?’), the questions get personal quite quickly. The aim is to cultivate connection by focusing on commonality, and build trust by exchanging confidences (including embarrassing moments, how you feel about your mother, and the open-ended ‘I wish I had someone with whom I could share…’)
They also force a showing of the hand: by #31 we’ve worked up to ‘tell your partner something that you like about them already’. Catron notes, “It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time.”
The prolonged eye contact offers another opportunity to increase intimacy (as anyone who has enthusiastically clicked through to a Tantric sex tips article will tell you). Catron describes the four minutes they spent eye gazing as
one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life…
The real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me.
Which is ultimately what we’re looking for in love, isn’t it? To be seen and accepted as (we think) we really are.
So…did Aron’s study work when taken into the field, as it were? Yes! Ms. Catron and her companion did fall in love. Although she admits that it may have happened anyway, the couple “spent weeks in the intimate space created that night, waiting to see what it could become.”
Catron followed up the article with a TED talk, aptly titled Falling in Love is the Easy Part, in which she considers the reaction to her article and the earnest questions she gets about whether or not they’re still together (they are). She concludes that people, including herself, are looking for some kind of guarantee in love.
I want the happy ending implied by the title to my article…
But what I have instead is the chance to make the choice to love someone, and the hope that he will choose to love me back, and it is terrifying, but that’s the deal with love.
But before we get to the staying in love, we must fall. Are you ready to give intimate inquiry and intense gaze a whirl? Pull up nytimes.com/36q on your phone to arm yourself with the magic questions before your next Tinder date…