Closer, but not in love: the truth behind the 36 questions

By: Nazaneen Baqizada

“We should try the 36 questions,” I told my boyfriend one rainy autumn evening.

“Why? We’re already in love,” he said.

But it wasn’t about falling in love. Almost 20 years ago, psychologist Arthur Aron, tested an experiment in a lab to make strangers get closer by asking each other 36 questions. The questions were published in “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings.” The study got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that it went viral. In the New York Times Modern Love column, Mandy Len Catron used the study to write “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” She had just gone through a tough breakup with her boyfriend of nine years when she came across this study. Catron was turning to science to somehow “inoculate her from heartache,” so she decided to try this experiment with someone she briefly knew and wrote about it. The article received over eight million views in just a month and people from all around the world tried the experiment for themselves.

“Anybody can do the experiment, and anybody who does it with a sincere attitude will create a sense of closeness and intimacy,” Catron says.

But will it make them fall in love?

“If you wanted to fall in love, if that’s your goal, you would have to be very sincerely open to that,” Catron says. “I think we have this cultural idea that love is something that happens to us without us having a desire for it, but psychology has proven that that’s not true at all.”

Two people who participated in the original experiment got married six months later. Catron is still in a relationship with the man she tried it with. Dr. Aron and his wife Elaine have also given it a shot. So I decided to have two of my friends, Antonio Fernando and Christine Li, who have been dating for a couple months, try it.

“We never really talked about such different 36 things all in one sitting, so it was nice just to sit there and actually hear one another,” Li says.

Although they were already in love, she says the experiment did bring them closer together.

“It was very reassuring, I felt humbled that I was with a person I really love, and she was right in front of me,” Fernando says.

While these questions have proven to work in creating closeness between many people, there is no magic behind it. According to Dr. Aron, the questions are about gradually increasing self-disclosure. They were created to look at how closeness develops naturally between friends – revealing bit by bit about each other as time goes on. The first set is just general questions, such as asking who you want as a dinner guest. By the third set, questions like when you last cried or whose death you would find most disturbing pop up.

“It’s good to be connected to another person that you’re friends with, and after you’ve gotten to know them well, revealing things that are intimate is really valuable,” Aron says.

Katheryn C. Maguire, a communication studies professor at Wayne State University, says what these questions prompt is the social penetration theory.

It proposes that as relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more intimate ones.

“The questions in Aron’s study were intimacy building and a cool way to think of that word is INTO-ME-SEE; look into me and see me,” Maguire says.

Communication is one of the most important qualities in any kind of relationship, and this experiment helps take it to a deeper level. While participants can find out a lot about each other through asking these questions, there are also other aspects to it.

Dr. Aron says two of the things that make this experiment so successful are including questions that make you feel that the other person likes you back, and feeling that you are similar to them.

As I write, my boyfriend is making us dinner while singing along to the new Adele album.

“So how do you feel now that we’ve done these questions?” I ask.

“Closer to you, but nothing life changing,” he says.

“We have no research showing that these questions can be used to fall in love, but it’s not unreasonable that if everything else were in place, they may be the closest you could get to generating love,” Aron says.

*Click here to watch Antonio and Christine asking each other the 36 questions on our Relationship Reel page.

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