You meet a stranger, ask them 36 questions from a list, stare into their eyes for four minutes, and then fall madly in love.
This is exactly the experiment psychologist Arthur Aron conducted 20 years ago after putting two strangers into a lab. One of the couples tested ended up getting married.
While Aron wrote in his paper that his intention was only to create a “temporary feeling of closeness, not an actual ongoing relationship”, there are documented instances of the experiment working.
In an article for the New York Times this month, writer Mandy Len Catron tested the theory with an old university acquaintance … and ended up falling in love.
See the full list of questions below
But was Len Catron’s romance a happy coincidence or the outcome of a carefully calculated scientific formula? We put this supposed recipe for love to the test.
The road test
In order to assess the usefulness of Aron’s questions, I organised a date with a friend of a friend, who I arranged to meet at a pub.
First of all, inviting someone to what is essentially an interrogation session is awkward but thankfully my date was up for the challenge.
While we were both nervous at the start, the questions flew by, and it felt nice sharing personal things about ourselves that we wouldn’t normally have told each other.
My heart melted when he told me his most treasured memory was a special moment shared with his friends, and when he told me his most embarrassing moment, I promised never to share it.
There were some challenges too. I wanted to share more of my life story than he did his.
It can also be a nerve-wracking experience, with my date admitting to having a shot to help steel himself before I arrived at the pub.
The idea of staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes also made us both uneasy, but the time passed quickly (even if we cheated by talking throughout).
Was I in love at the end of the date? No, but I do feel like I’ve made a new connection and possible friendship.
So can it really work?
The feeling that you’re being listened to and the act of sharing intimate things is what makes people feel so connected, psychologist Meredith Fuller says.
“In this situation you’re actually encouraging to share at a deeper level than you’d normally do, in a compressed amount of time.”
She says it’s a good idea for everyone to try the experiment as “the more you know what you’re looking for, the more likely you are to find it”.
Psychologist Amanda Gordon says staring into each other’s eyes is a “powerful component”.
“It’s the idea that this person is being so open to you,” Ms Gordon says.
For the experiment to work, both people have to take the questions seriously and be open to falling in love, she says.
“I think it’s as valid as many other ways of meeting a partner because you’re saying ‘I’m going to take a risk’, and reveal something about yourself.
“You’re not going to meet a life partner if you’re just laughing at the questions and not really listening to the answers.
“You have to be open and prepared to take risks.”
What if you’re already in a relationship?
Ms Fuller says the questions could also be helpful for people who are married or in a long-term relationship.
“This is often the conversation you don’t have because you’re too busy saying ‘put the bins out’. You forget what it’s all about,” she says.
“Something like this, you’ve actually got to do the real stuff. It’s helpful, very helpful. That’s why it works with some people.”
The 36 questions:
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. 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 want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling …”
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share …”
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. 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.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. 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?
34. 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?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. 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.