A few weeks ago, Mandy Len Catron of the New York Times published “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” which has since gone viral and even inspired a few parodies. In the piece, Catron talks about going to a bar with a man who would later become her boyfriend and asking each other 36 questions, followed by four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact. The study, formed by Dr. Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University, was originally designed to measure closeness in strangers, but has since then been used to try to form romantic bonds between people.
“We were trying to find a method in the laboratory to create closeness,” Aron told BuzzFeed. “There had been a fair amount of research on how people tend to form friendships, and what that research showed was that a very standard process is that they self-disclose, reveal personal things about themselves at a gradually increasing rate, and that it’s reciprocal. So we wanted to see if we could make that happen in a short amount of time in a lab.”
What matters even more than self-disclosure, Aron said, is how the other person responds. “If I’m sitting there self-disclosing and the other person is just sitting there blankly and then takes their turn, it’s not going to have the same effect, we think, based on the research, than if the other person is nodding and appreciating that that’s how you feel.”
“Believing that someone is interested in deeply knowing you and seeing you for your true self is an extremely important ingredient for intimacy to develop,” Dr. Jill P. Weber told BuzzFeed. “But more powerful than believing this about a person is actually experiencing someone asking questions and displaying interest in a person’s most intimate details.”
As far as the eye contact’s effect, Dr. Kelly Campbell of California State University told BuzzFeed that “researchers have found that the ‘bonding’ or ‘love’ hormone of oxytocin gets released during prolonged eye contact. This is the same hormone that gets released when mothers breastfeed and gaze into the eyes of their infant.”
With all that in mind, we decided to test out this experiment ourselves.
Some of us were meeting strangers for the first time on a blind date. Some of us had just started seeing the person or were in new relationships. Others were together for a decade or so.
The official study had the 36 questions divided into three sets, where each section was timed for 15 minutes and the whole experiment lasted for 45 minutes total. However, we decided to answer all 36 questions the same way that Catron did in her piece, our experiences ranging from three and a half to seven hours, respectively.
Brett Vergara and Anonymous, Blind First Date
A: The hardest part was probably the build up to it. I was really nervous about the idea of opening up to a complete stranger. When I got there it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I actually really enjoyed myself!
BV: What quickly became apparent doing this exercise is how we were far more similar than I’d have originally anticipated. On the surface, it would seem that my partner and I came from very different backgrounds, with entirely different upbringings, and in turn had completely contrasting life experiences. This definitely wasn’t the case. It only took a few questions to unravel the similarities and common chords in our backgrounds.
A: I’m hoping that after this experience I will go into future dating situations being less afraid to really open up about who I am.
BV: I would say that going through this process serves more as an intensifier of any type of relationship, romantic or platonic. I mean, before I went through this experience there wasn’t a single person that knew the answer to every question involved with this exercise. Not my parents, not anyone I’ve been in a prior relationship with, not even my closest friends. When someone knows that much about you, especially on that intimate of a level, it’s only bound to bring you closer.
Sarah Karlan and Becca Sherman, Dating for Two Months
SK: I like sharing what is going on in my head. I found it more strange to hear how I appear to another person. I think we all have an idea of how we come across to others, but to hear someone say what they ‘like’ about me was weirdly amazing — and also made me feel uncomfortable at the same time. Such brazen honesty is not usually how we function in everyday life. It was refreshing.
BS: The weirdest part of this for me was talking so much about my childhood and family. I don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on my childhood, and don’t think of asking about it or discussing it much with someone I’m dating — at least, not in some sort of analytical way. That being said, I surprised myself with some of my answers, and it felt important and worthwhile to share with her.
SK: I like the idea of “cutting to the chase” or “cutting through the bullshit” and asking real questions. On dates sometimes you can get wrapped up talking about the superficial but it was a different ballgame doing the deep dive into each other’s lives. I think more people should do this even with non-romantic partners. Do it with your friends, your mom, everyone! Maybe not the eye contact though… that could get weird.
BS: I think I was most surprised at how comfortable the eye contact part of the experiment was for me. I had built that part of the experiment up in my head, and was expecting it to be pretty nerve-racking and/or awkward, but after spending time digging into all of these questions, it just felt right. You spend this very direct, focused time digging deep into who you both are with these questions, learning to “see” who the other person really is, and then you spend a really direct, focused amount of time physically seeing this person. I thought it was just a really perfect way to wrap it up and make you feel even closer.
Jenna Guillaume and Chris Guillaume, Together for 13.5 Years, Married for Two
JG: The hardest part for me was staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes. It didn’t feel natural — I kept wanting to lean forward and kiss Chris or ask what he was thinking or talk or do SOMETHING. It felt a little absurd, and I think it was probably more to do with my habit of constantly wanting to keep myself busy. Being still without any distractions was tough for me. But it was kind of relaxing too.
CG: I was surprised at how nice it was to share these things with each other again. It brought up wonderful memories of what we have done and achieved together.
JG: The thing that struck me most was that there weren’t really any surprises, which is probably good considering we’ve been together for 13.5 years. We know each other better than anyone else. The most surprising part for me was actually thinking about my OWN answers, and dwelling on a few things I hadn’t really considered before.
CG: The main takeaway from this was that talking more is always going to make for a happy relationship. It is easy to forget to talk with all the distractions in life these days so setting time aside each day to just talk might be my new favorite part of the day.
Julia Pugachevsky and Anonymous, Second Date
JP: I really liked the questions where we had to name things we liked about each other, because we had to do it several times and go deeper than just “you’re smart” or “you’re attractive.” He had some very thoughtful things to say about me that I don’t think would normally come up on a second date, and it was quite wonderful to hear what nice things people notice about you when they first meet you.
A: As we opened up to each other more and more, to my surprise, I actually felt more physically attracted to her. I tend to think of physical attractiveness as this immutable rating, like one you’d give a Sims character or something, certainly something that only changes over a long time scale. But I guess it’s rare to look at someone hard, really scrutinizing them, without the intent of criticizing them or judging them negatively, and really finding the good.
JP: In some ways, this felt more comfortable to me than a standard second date at a bar because it gave us the freedom to open up when it’s usually considered a dating taboo to reveal too much too soon. I ended up telling him some hilariously incriminating stories about myself and we both had a good laugh, and I think that was a positive experience for me — not being afraid to really make fun of myself and just trusting the other person to get it.
A: Something that I’ll take away from this exercise is just remembering to compliment people. It felt so great when she said nice stuff about me. It’s so basic, but everyone’s so wrapped up in trying not to seem too vulnerable or too interested that people don’t compliment each other enough.
Arianna Rebolini and Brendan N., Together for 1.5 Years
AR: The questions that assumed or required us being strangers were funny, we had to alter how we were answering them, like the things we appeared to have in common. That one is probably better when you’re venturing a guess instead of being like, “We both like sushi; this is a fact.” Same things for the ones that were better suited for single people (like the “I wish I had someone to share ___ with” one).
BN: I had a hard time with some of the more abstract ones, like the one about love and affection.
AR: I was surprised at how visibly uncomfortable he was talking about himself. I feel like I knew he didn’t like being the center of attention, but it was like he didn’t want to take up time on his own stuff. I was also surprised by how much we DID know. I thought we’d be like learning all these new things about it each other but I guess we’ve covered a lot.
BN: I couldn’t believe how hard it was for me to tell my life story. It was such a struggle, and I picked such weird things. It felt impersonal the way I told it, like what was it, my fucking Facebook timeline? It felt like the most impersonal of all my answers.
Erin Chack and Sean C., Together for 9.5 Years
EC: I found it funny when I asked Sean the first question — “Who would like to have dinner with?” — and he looked at me blankly and said, “Am I supposed to say you?” After topping off his glass of wine and explaining the experiment wasn’t to prove we are in love but to help new couples accelerate intimacy, he relaxed. It was endearing how nervous he seemed at first.
SC: Erin and I have been dating for nine years so it was cool to go over a lot of views we’ve both talked about in our relationship and see what has changed, which wasn’t much.
EC: The most surprising thing to me was that there was literally nothing we didn’t know about each other. I thought there’d be some uncharted territory, but every response he gave I knew before he said it. The only new thing I learned was Sean thinks he’s going to die very old and I think I’m going to die young, which is something we may have never enunciated but I ascertained from the way we talk about our futures.
SC: Just thinking about the foundation of our relationship again was cool. And to always try to remember what we clicked together on and how we grew with each other and grow outside our relationship as well.
Isaac Fitzgerald and Alice Kim, Together for Two Years
IF: I found out things I didn’t know about Alice, which is always exciting. I also thought it was really interesting to see what she focused on when telling her life story in four minutes. I was actually surprised by what I focused on during my own answering of that question as well.
AK: You get into a groove concerning the day-to-day, which is fine, but a little high-flown abstract talk never hurt anybody.
IF: I think there are ways that I could better support Alice based on some of her answers. I feel more familiar with the things she’s hopeful for, and with the things that she worries about. (She really didn’t like looking me in the eyes for four minutes, so we should probably avoid that in the future.)
AK: I had no problem staring at Isaac for that long, as he’s dreamy, but I found myself getting twitchy and self-conscious about being looked at — really looked at — for so long.
Krystie Yandoli and Chris W., Blind First Date
KY: Answering these questions wasn’t difficult for me because I like to consider myself a pretty honest and open person (plus, I talk a lot anyway). Asking the questions wasn’t difficult for me either, since I interview people all the time and am comfortable having conversations that involve an in-depth level of thought. But just sitting there with another person who, presumably was supposed to be a potential love interest felt bizarre in itself — opening myself up to that possibility was new and way overdue.
CW: I think by nature I’m pretty willing to reveal almost anything about myself in almost any situation, so the intimacy and privacy wasn’t a big deal. Maybe the hardest part, then, was staying on track enough to actually get through the questions in a reasonable amount of time since we both were pretty interested in pursuing tangential follow up questions. The whole thing took like five hours!
KY: I haven’t been open to the idea of love or romantic relationships for the past few years, so it was nice to be reminded of the work that needs to be done in order to create a substantial relationship. Since I went out with Chris, I’ve become more approachable, initiated dates, given out my number, and have had plenty of successful romantic interactions. This hasn’t been entirely intentional on my part, but I think subconsciously I’ve opened myself up to the idea of being comfortable with guys and knowing that if I want something, I have to go after it myself.
CW: The biggest takeaway was about the scope and topics of the questions. Essentially they access deeper forms of connections by trying to avoid questions of what you “do” and get in to who you “are.” Sure, getting to know someone’s tastes and interests is important, but by focusing on personal history and how the other person feels about specific emotional cues, or what their hopes or wishes are about their life ahead, these kinds of questions bring out more nuance and information about a person’s personality.