Mandy Len Catron’s recent piece in the New York Times (“To fall in love with anyone, do this") presents an utterly enchanting possibility: Ask and answer a set of 36 simple questions, and bam! You can fall in love with anyone. It’s a research-based exercise and, when she tried it, it (kind of) worked. She’s now happily in love and the suggestion is on the table: Could this happen for you, as well?
It’s no surprise that this article has garnered global curiosity: Human connection is a fundamental human drive and romantic relationships are a source of great comfort, contributing in profound ways to psychological health and well-being. For many, one of the hardest tasks is finding a partner who wants us in the same way that we want them, and who has enough compatible values, views, and goals to make a happy life together with us.
In the search for love, are we all trying too hard or trying in the wrong ways? Can two people fall in love just by asking and answering 36 questions?
Maybe, but probably not.
Catron and her partner followed a study conducted by Aron and colleagues (1997) in which they attempted to induce interpersonal closeness through varying the types of questions that two strangers would discuss. Some pairs asked progressively more intimate questions to each other, while others engaged in structured small talk. Those who engaged in intimate conversations reported substantially more closeness than those in the small-talk group.
The mechanism at work? Self-disclosure.
Self-disclosure is the sharing of personally-relevant information—feelings, hopes, beliefs, or thoughts. Its effect depends on an interpersonal process. Just revealing your personal thoughts is not enough to induce closeness; there needs to be a responsive listener at the other end (Laurenceau, Barrett, & Pietromonaco, 1998).
Aron never intended to create long-lasting love through his study. His goal was to induce temporary feelings of closeness. Catron’s ambitions seem more oriented to the potential for long-term love. I like to say I had more of Aron’s approach in mind when I tried these questions in a classroom exercise (though people who know me better might suspect match-making aspirations). In any case, the undergraduates in my 36-person advanced psychology course got to try out the basics of Aron’s study.
My students were naïve participants, unaware of Aron’s work. I randomly paired them and assigned them to the small-talk or self-disclosure conditions. Students progressed through Aron’s questions and at the end of our class period, answered an anonymous survey about their partner. (We did not engage in an eye-gazing task, as discussed in Catron’s article, which Aron’s study also did not include.)
And yet, the conversation was enough: Students in the self-disclosure condition reported more closeness to their partners than those in the small-talk conditions.
Does this mean I caused half my class to fall in love? No. Inducing closeness is different from inducing the long-term love that so many of us seek. Healthy, stable relationships are a complex outcome of numerous forces: individual, dyadic, and situational factors all play a role in building a couple’s dynamic and that couple’s long-term potential. As much as we might want a simple step-by-step recipe, the reality is generally much more complicated.
Catron acknowledges as much. She writes, “Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.” Such a statement reflects a well-established idea in the science of romantic relationships that healthy partnerships depend on commitment (Rusbult, 1980). Couples choose each other; they work on their relationships. Moving from temporary closeness to a long-term partnership requires a decision and the effort to back it up.
So if the 36 questions won’t guarantee love, what’s the point? Well, finding love isn’t our only goal, and while temporary closeness may be a foundation for a relationship, it also has merit in and of itself. Remember that people are fundamentally oriented towards human connection.
In fact, we’re so oriented toward human connection that we often don’t even realize it. Recent evidence suggests that most people “mistakenly seek solitude.” In other words, they think they would prefer sitting quietly and refraining from interacting with strangers, but evidence points to the contrary (Epley & Schroeder, 2014). When surrounded by strangers (e.g., on a subway or bus) people who engage in social interaction have a much more positive experience than those who just go about their regular commuter solitude. Connecting is rewarding.
In sum, Catron reminds us of the importance of human connection. Sure, if you happen to engage in self-disclosure with an available, interested party who happens to suit you on a variety of important dimensions (e.g., values, goals, etc.), then such initial conversation may lay the foundation for a long-term romantic relationship. Have this conversation in the dark and you’re particularly likely to feel a burgeoning closeness (Werth, Steidle, Hanke, 2012). But it’s not all about romantic relationships. You can also use the power of self-disclosure to deepen existing relationships with friends or family, to add intimacy to your existing partnership, or to engage more deeply in the social experience of being human. All of these possibilities make Aron and colleague’s study worth remembering.
Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363-377.
Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 1980-1999.
Laurenceau, J. P., Barrett, L. F., & Pietromonaco, P. R. (1998). Intimacy as an interpersonal process: the importance of self-disclosure, partner disclosure, and perceived partner responsiveness in interpersonal exchanges. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1238-1251.
Werth, L., Steidle, A., & Hanke, E. (2012). Getting close in the dark: Darkness increases cooperation. Retrieved from: http://2012.experiencinglight.nl/doc/12.pdf.