Falling in love is no mean feat. It requires the perfect constellation of biochemical attraction, romantic compatibility, lifestyle alignment, shared values, and so on... or does it?
What if love could be generated between virtually any couple in as little as 45 minutes?
No (wo)man is an island, and studying humans in isolation will only ever provide limited information. William James wrote that we have as many ‘social selves’ as we have friends or acquaintances, and that we typically show different sides of our personalities depending on the people we’re spending time with.
This means that in behavioural science, research subjects who have pre-existing relationships to each other are very valuable. They allow scientists to develop a richer understanding of personality and human behaviour, and to simulate real-world context more accurately inside a lab.
Yet recruiting couples or groups of friends is harder than recruiting individuals, because it requires more people within a given demographic to agree to take part (and be free on the same dates).
As a result, any procedure that allowed researchers to manufacture these relationships in a lab context would be extremely useful. And in 1997, psychologists Arthur and Elaine N. Aron, a married couple, teamed up with three other researchers for exactly that purpose.
They wanted to make being in a relationship “accessible to laboratory study,” and devised a series of processes to achieve that result.
To begin with, the researchers paired up individuals based on a series of questions about their views and personalities. No two people who already knew each other were paired up, and pairs were both mixed-sex and all-female (the research subjects were psychology students, who are disproportionately likely to be women).
Over a series of experiments, pairs were made based on the following criteria:
The researchers also varied the conditions under which the study was done, such as:
With one small exception*, none of these conditions or criteria made a significant difference to how close the subjects became to each other. In some ways, this contradicts existing literature on intimacy: for example, when OKCupid led paired individuals to believe that they were very compatible with each other (or vice versa), people behaved accordingly.
This could mean two things: either one of the studies was flawed, or the effect size of this closeness study was so great that choosing not to prime research subjects in favour of the desired outcome didn’t make a dent in its power.
There are good reasons to think that the second explanation here is the right one. After each experiment in the series, participants were asked to rate the closeness of their relationship with their experiment partner on a 1-7 scale. The average over all experiments was 3.82 out of 7; a finding replicated or improved by several follow-up studies with different samples.
And when asked to compare the relationship with their experiment partner to the other deepest and most intimate relationships in their lives, participants put the one with their experiment partner in about the 30th percentile for closeness. This means that after 45 minutes of interaction, participants’ relationship with their experiment partner was closer than 30% of the other intimate relationships in their lives.
Even more impressively, in follow-up surveys it transpired that the majority of participants had stayed in touch with the stranger they’d met during the event – with 57% going on to have at least one further conversation after the event. More than a third (35%) had done an activity together, and 37% had chosen to sit together in class. Business Insider even reported that one pair ended up married.
Not only that: participants reported enjoying the research considerably, rating it an average of 5.78/7, and often mentioning it as a highlight of their course in end-of-term assessments.
So just how did the researchers create this phenomenon?
The secret, it transpires, is pretty simple: if you want to get close to someone, you need to exchange increasingly personal information with them. Small talk doesn’t cut it: banal questions led only to closeness of 3.25/7 (vs 4.06/7 for the specially designed closeness questions). This corresponds to an effect size of .88 standard deviations, which is above that considered “large” in psychological literature.
In short: the kind of questions and answers you share with your conversational partner makes a big difference to how close you’ll be after spending time together.
By way of example, here are some of the “small talk” questions provided by the researchers. These questions were split up into three sets of 15 minutes, but there was no difference between each set.
By contrast, here are the questions designed to foster close relationships. These, too, were split up into three sets of 15 minutes, but each set becomes progressively more personal as the relationship develops. We’ve written out these questions in full: perhaps you can try them on your next date…
*Introverts tended to end up less close to their conversational partners than extraverts after the 45 minutes, unless they were told that the objective of the exercise was to become close. When this was mentioned, introverts performed just as well as extraverts.