36 Questions to Make Someone Fall in Love With You… Or Not
In 1997, psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues conducted a 45-minute study in which subject pairs engaged in small talk that increased in both intensity and disclosure over the course of the 45 minutes. The small talk consisted of 36 questions intended to make the paired subjects feel closer at the end of the experiment. The infamous 36 questions were divided into three groups, each one more personal than the last to create the intended intimacy between the paired strangers. Previous research had shown that intimate relationships are a product of reciprocal and personal self-disclosure. The research was not in vain.
Participants who participated in self-disclosing conversations reported significantly greater post-interaction intimacy in comparison to those who engaged only in casual small talk. Naturally, people freaked out. The questions were coined the name “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” in the The New York Times Modern Love Column. Publicity was off the charts. Psychologists and those with no psychology background at all responded alike. 36 questions were all it took to make someone fall in love with you? Singles rejoiced, and lonely hearts found hope. But before you start interrogating your childhood crushes, let’s look at how true this holds up to be.
For starters, here are the 36 questions themselves, split up by set:
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- Would you like to be famous? In what way?
- Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
- What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
- When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
- 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?
- Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
- Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
- If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
- Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
- If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
- If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
- What do you value most in a friendship?
- What is your most treasured memory?
- What is your most terrible memory?
- If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
- What does friendship mean to you?
- What roles do love and affection play in your life?
- Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
- How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
- How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
- Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
- Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
- If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- 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.
- Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
- When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
- Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
- What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
- 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?
- 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?
- Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
- 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.
So How Does it Work?
The secret is in interpersonal self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is the process of sharing personal information that includes, but is not limited to, beliefs, thoughts, and dreams. Self-disclosure creates a sense of vulnerability and requires trust in the recipient on the other end. The interpersonal aspect kicks in when said recipient listens to these beliefs, thoughts, and dreams and responds positively. A supportive attitude, a genuine interest, and/or an appreciation for the vulnerability required in opening up are all examples of a positive response. If the response negative, such as a lack of interest or criticism, the relationship will likely weaken or end altogether. In other words, if your partner tells you they want to be the next American Idol, wait in line and hold their hand even if their singing makes your ears bleed.
A supportive attitude, a genuine interest, and/or an appreciation for the vulnerability required in opening up are all examples of a positive response. If the response negative, such as a lack of interest or criticism, the relationship will likely weaken or end altogether. In other words, if your partner tells you they want to be the next American Idol, wait in line and hold their hand even if their singing makes your ears bleed.
The other primary working mechanism is the slow and steady nature of the questions. “If you say too much too fast, it puts the person off. But if you start with something that’s not too personal and then gradually moves to personal, both are comfortable, and it develops a great deal of closeness,” Dr. Aron told researchers in an interview with ABC. If the attitude behind the answers from both participants aligns, individuals are more inclined to pursue the relationship further. Similarity matters less than compatible attitudes. For example, if one person’s answer to question 16 (“What do you value most in a friendship?”) is money, and the other’s is loyalty, more harm will likely be done than good.
Is it total B.S.?
Yes and no. Marriage counselors use a similar method during partner sessions. Facilitated conversations in which one or both partners disclose personal and vulnerable information can create empathy and closeness that may have been lost in the marriage. Arguably, the best part of the experiment was that the guinea pigs for the study were two lab assistants who were blind to the study. The pair ended up getting married a few years down the line and invited the entirety of the lab to the ceremony. If that isn’t great advertising, I’m not sure what is.
To play devil’s advocate, closeness and intimacy are not synonymous to love. Granted, they are a key part and arguably even a gateway to long-term love. but it is wrong to claim that these 36 questions will “make someone fall in love with you.” Time and the experiences shared over time are invaluable and cannot be replaced by a 45-minute session, no matter how much self-disclosure occurs. Love, at first sight, is a great premise for a Hollywood film, but rarely happens in real life (I apologize to all the hopeless romantics reading this with anger and disgust). The 36 questions may lay a foundation for love, but there’s a hell of a lot more to it.