It turns out that the answer to life isn’t 42, as we all previously thought. It might just be 36.

Why 36? Because, if the numerous articles which have sprung up in the wake of university professor Mandy Len Catron’s essay ‘To fall in love with anyone, do this’ are to be believed, falling in love is as simple as asking and answering 36 increasingly intimate questions.

Oh wait, is that all??

Drawing from psychologist Arthur Aron et al’s 1997 study, plucky reporters (both American and British) put the findings to the test with an additional 4-minute-long period of sustained eye contact.

The original study, testing ‘the experimental generation of interpersonal closeness’, wasn’t designed to engineer romantic attraction, merely to create a temporary sense of intimacy (defined here as ‘sharing that which is inmost with others’). But hey, two participants got hitched. Catron fell in love. And Valentine’s Day is less than a month away, people.

What’s so ingenious, and so potent, about Catron’s story goes beyond the Hollywood-esque happy ending. It touches on something so many of us take for granted; the untapped power of day-to-day interaction.

I’ve been lucky enough to participate in a couple of social engagements over the last few weeks and I know first-hand how easy it is to shy away from self-disclosure. I also know how fun it is to blow people’s minds by asking them stuff that’s deeper than, you know, ‘what do you do?’ and ‘where are you from?’

Small talk is small because the risks are small. And, perhaps often, so are the rewards.

I sometimes wonder whether intimacy is simultaneously what we humans crave, and fear, most. The Guardian newspaper’s own version of the experiment crackles and hums with embarrassment at the rarely-experienced vulnerability and self-disclosure.

(Although, perhaps that’s just we British for you…)

Asking ‘why’ someone does what they do, ‘why’ they live where they live, even ‘why’ they picked that jumper this morning, opens up a world of answers neither the asker nor the answerer are always prepared for. As Bim Adewunmi notes;

“There is no way I would tell someone on a normal first date about my relationship with my mother. But in light of the unusual circumstances, and what we have already shared of ourselves this evening, why not? The questions are probing – your most embarrassing moment, your favourite memory etc – and the great thing about them is how they force reflection. Not looking at the questions beforehand was a good idea, because I think I would have cooked my answers a bit.”

And so, we find ourselves stumbling into virgin territory, having to think in the moment and come up with an answer our inner critic hopes will not result in social suicide. Christ, no wonder we prefer the complicit keeping of each other’s lies (‘Oh, I’m fine…’)

Perhaps it comes down to trust, something this very structured set of questions also engenders.

I love Lea Brovedani’s definition of the word; “Trust is a willingness to be open and vulnerable based upon positive expectations you believe you will receive from the other person.” Through their back-and-forth mutual disclosure, the 36 questions unwittingly create space to demonstrate many of her 5 Cs – Caring, Commitment, Consistency, Competence and Communication.

Sadly, our British participants didn’t fall in love. As Catron’s herself admitted: “Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”

As Theresa DiDonato, social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland, astutely notes at Psychology Today,

“So if the 36 questions won’t guarantee love, what’s the point? Well, finding love isn’t our only goal, and while temporary closeness may be a foundation for a relationship, it also has merit in and of itself .. Connecting is rewarding .. You can also use the power of self-disclosure to deepen existing relationships with friends or family, to add intimacy to your existing partnership, or to engage more deeply in the social experience of being human. All of these possibilities make Aron and colleague’s study worth remembering.”

Because when Facebook can knows us better than our own friends and family, there’s more to increasing the love in our lives than just the stuff with hearts and flowers.

(Just don’t tell Cupid, yeah?)


Footnote: It’s interesting to speculate how much one of the fellow authors, Elaine N Aron, influenced the study. Famous for studying the traits of sensitivity and developing the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), approximately 20% of higher mammals have a nervous system which has a greater sensitivity to stimuli. It would be interesting to discover if the two who wed were also highly sensitive, or if HSPs find so much disclosure in one sitting too overwhelming.

Photo Credit: Shimelle Laine

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