What would you say if I told you that, by asking and answering the right questions with a complete stranger, and then staring into their eyes for several minutes, you’d suddenly find yourself in love, and it would be mutual?

The whole thing would take—oh, I don’t know—an hour or so. If you’re not the gullible type, or the kind who’s into gimmicks, or believes in a formula for anything so difficult to pin down like love, well, I’m with you. But I’m sure you’d agree that it’s always best to keep an open mind, right? 

A method of modern love

Although creating a feeling of closeness and intimacy between people who have just met is challenging, particularly in lab conditions, in 1997 psychologist Arthur Aaron of Stony Brook University and his team created a method that supposedly does just that.

It consists of 36 questions broken up into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the last. The two people take turns answering each question, the idea being that mutual vulnerability builds closeness. And then, the final task (and the cherry on top) is at once terrifying and utterly disarming: staring into each other’s eyes for four whole minutes.

The method even inspired a movie called 36 Questions, where its lead characters go through this unconventional method.

Does it, um…work?

In 2015, Aaron’s unorthodox study was tested by writer Mandy Len Catron at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In her New York Times essay, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” she discusses her experience testing out the method with a friend—someone she knew, but not intimately.

The questions range from “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” to much deeper questions about mothers, death, and personal approaches to problem solving. 

It was going as well as could be, and in response to the prompt, “Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common,” he looked at her and said, “I think we’re both interested in each other,” which from Catron’s account, they were.

When it came time to stare into one another’s eyes, they chose to leave the bar they were in and go stand atop a nearby bridge. Romantic much? Catron found the prospect of looking at someone for four minutes very intimidating:

[T]he real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected…I felt brave, and in a state of wonder.

Mandy Len Catron

“You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love,” writes Catron. “Well, we did. Although it’s hard to credit the study entirely (it may have happened anyway), the study did give us a way into a relationship that feels deliberate. We spent weeks in the intimate space we created that night, waiting to see what it could become. Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”

Strengthening existing bonds

Writing for Salon, Melanie Berliet decided to try the method with her boyfriend after five years of dating and three years of living together. She went into it with the following question: “Is it even possible to grow closer once there’s nothing left to discover?”

Still, she found herself nervous about the prospect of the questions revealing them as somehow mismatched (even though she describes their bond as “impressively strong”).

Unsurprisingly (from where I’m standing), they learned a few new things about one another, like the fact that they have opposite answers to the question “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?”

Just the newness of this revealed discrepancy is a revelation to the author. But when prompted to list positive attributes about one another, Berliet’s sense that her chosen partner respects her immensely was only strengthened. 

It’s impossible to guess how long the amped up intimacy will last. But I’m more certain than ever that I’m with the right person. And that openness and vulnerability are powerful tools we can use to spark love, and sustain it.

Melanie Berliet

No formula is foolproof

In 2017, Carina Hsieh tested the study for Cosmopolitan, arranging a last minute Tinder date. She calls the end-result “a disaster.” Her experience with her date, Matthew, was overwhelmingly awkward, at times agonizingly so, and largely served to highlight how different they were and why it would never work.

He was close to his family, she was not. He mentioned his need to “drop off the face of the earth” for days at a time, which was already a red flag for her from previous relationships. And the dealbreaker: he described himself as a “Chihuahua person.”

To Hsieh, the experience of answering and asking the questions was a good way to speed things up “if you’re meant to be,” but, she added, “if you’re just not compatible, those differences will come out sooner rather than later.”

So how can a scientific study produce both lovers and not-lovers? Because, silly, study or not, love is ultimately always a choice. Aaron’s study, as I see it, is a very handy dandy tool that can be used to carve out love, hone love, facilitate it, strengthen it—but without a mutual will, there’s no real way.

Most of us think about love as something that happens to us. We fall. We get crushed. But what I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action.

Mandy Len Catron

The moral of the story, then, is that falling in love is one of the most proactive things you can do in life. 

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