We are sitting across from each other about to start an experiment, which I have always been curious about. We are going to ask each other 36 questions which have been claimed to make even complete strangers fall in love with each other. Intrigued? Let me explain a bit more.
In a 1997 study, psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron explored whether intimacy between two strangers could be accelerated by having them ask each other 36 increasingly more personal questions. Arthur Aron’s field of research is the role, creation, and maintenance of intimacy in interpersonal relationships. Aron was able to determine what allows us to share personal information and begin to feel mutual appreciation, connection and ultimately a trusting bond, which is the basis for falling in love.
The list of 36 questions is divided into three sets. They begin with more superficial queries like, ”Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” Then they slowly build to more personal questions, probing for wishes, hopes, regrets, dreams, and main values of a person. Aron discovered that his participants did not want to share too much, too fast. But, when given permission to do so by a catalog of questions, what worked best was a back-and-forth self-disclosure that increased gradually.
In addition, after asking these 36 questions, the couple is guided to look into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes. Eye contact is an important part of bonding. That is how parents and babies build an attachment. That is also why lovers can gaze into each other’s eyes for hours. Common rules of politeness and convention would normally prevent us from doing this with a stranger. We have learned not to stare at others, not to mention even allowing ourselves to melt into the gaze of another and feel that we are all connected and that the experience of being separate from others is an illusion.
Do the 36 questions sound familiar to you? That might be because they have been in the media again in more recent years. In 2015, Aron’s questions went viral, starting with New York Times journalist Mandy Len Catron, who used the 36 questions in a self-experiment and did indeed fall in love. You can google her article or Ted talk, or you can look for other personal stories or recorded experiments of people trying out these questions. But let me get back to my own experiment.
We are sitting across from each other doing Facetime—because at the time of this experiment COVID-19 still has us in lockdown—and I am about to ask the first question. Who is the man across from me on Facetime? He is not a complete stranger, we know a bit about each other, we are both passionate teachers and writers and we are both fascinated with human nature. But we don’t really know each other particularly well. We both love exploring ideas and this quiz promises to be fascinating. Give me a deep conversation over a superficial one and I am in, and apparently, so is he.
The first question is simply about our ideal dinner guest. I find out that his would be Winston Churchill and why; and I share that mine would be the couples’ therapists Sidra and Hall Stone, of which the latter sadly passed away recently. We continue through further questions in set one and really get derailed on prompt 11 which reads, “Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.” Perhaps it is possible to do that in four minutes when you are twenty-five but at our age, there is too much to share. So, we decide to wave the four-minute restriction. Our life stories probably take up fifteen or twenty minutes each, with the other one asking additional questions.
A great bonding question in that first set is number 8: “Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.” As individual humans and on a national level that is exactly what we need to do more often. We need to focus on what we have in common, how we are alike as humans, and what unites us. How is the other person or nation like we are, a fellow human and not an enemy?
Overall, the first twelve questions remain quite surface-level, but that changes with the next twelve questions. It gets into whether you would want to have a crystal ball to look into the future, what dreams and accomplishments you have, what friendship means to you and what your most treasured and your most terrible memories are. When answering these questions honestly, there is a lot of potential for deep sharing and building trust. You are also asked what you would change when you knew that you only had a year to live, and what role love and affection play in your life.
The greatest potential for bonding, in my opinion, has prompt number 22: “Alternate sharing 5 things you consider positive characteristics of your partner.” I often do an appreciation exercise with couples, in which they are invited to give each other positive feedback and share what they have noticed the other one being or doing. We tend to get so focussed on everything which is lacking and everything that is wrong with our spouse that we forget to affirm the positive and feel the gratitude that it evokes. In this experiment, this prompt serves the additional function to receive feedback about how well the other person has listened to or watched you. My experiment partner delivers beautiful feedback about me and I notice warm and fuzzy feelings arising from being acknowledged and appreciated.
We are just about to start with set three when we notice that we have run out of time. We decide to continue with set three the next day, hoping that this won’t break the momentum and created closeness too much.
The next day, we meet on Zoom with the resolution to be more succinct in our answers but to still share deeply. There is a part in me which wonders about jumping back in in the middle of the catalog of questions and at first it feels a bit awkward to get right into personal questions, but that awkwardness vanishes as we have to complete the sentence “We are both feeling…”.
Question 26 focuses us back on our wishes and longings by having to complete the sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”. Prompt 28 and 31 want us to express in different ways what we like about the other person. I can tell that my partner in this experiment feels that is the same prompt and “did we not just answer that?” Observing myself, I notice that I quickly agree because we have been so conditioned to feel uncomfortable sharing positive affirmations.
Through prompt 32 to 35 we talk about what and who is important to us with questions like “If you were to die this evening, what would you most regret not having told someone?” I like those questions as they unveil further values of the other person and about their relationships.
Finally, the last prompt, number 36, reads “Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice” which after all this personal sharing is not difficult to do.
Why are these 36 questions so powerful? I believe it is because we all deeply long to be seen and heard. We long to be known for who we truly are. In everyday life, especially when first dating, we never really ask intimate questions. Some people who have tried this experiment on the first date have commented that it was like having the first ten dates within the very first date. The questions gave them permission to go deeper.
Looking into each other’s eyes for four minutes is also incredibly powerful. If you have taken workshops with me, you know that I have done exercises with participants of connecting through eye contact, bringing up strong heart-felt feelings and sending each other personal and then more impersonal energy. The results are always very eye opening. We learn with how much closeness we are comfortable and what it feels like to be showered with loving heart energy. We realize that the idea of separation is really an illusion. When we connect from heart-to-heart, we are able to create unity and be peaceful with each other.
Can these 36 questions make strangers fall in love? A fascinating concept for sure, but I would say these questions allow us to connect at a deeper and more personal level. They unveil the values of the person across from us, but they also make us feel seen and heard. That is the basis for trust, and trust is the basis for love.
Yet, there is probably more to romantic love. There is sexual energy being sent out and our reptilian brain responding to more instinctive markers that we have been conditioned to respond to, to couple up for procreation. However, these questions speed up the process of making an emotional connection at a deeper level.
And what if you are in a love relationship already? Clearly, the 36 questions have more significance than the potential to fall in love. They can rekindle the love of long-term couples or make platonic relationships more intimate. For me, it has been fascinating to watch young people on YouTube use these questions on blind dates that were set up for them, but perhaps even more touching to watch seniors, who have been together for fifty years and presumably have asked each other anything one could think of, take an hour to reconnect deeply with each other. Dr Elaine Aron, a clinical research psychologist and author who has studied sensitive personalities (Are you an HSP?) and her husband Dr Arthur Aron, have apparently also used the quiz to bond on a more personal level with their couple friends.
If you have someone in your life, a partner, or a friend,
who you want to try these questions out with,
you can download a PDF with the 36 prompts here: