The 36 Questions: An Experiment about an Experiment

You may have read a recent New York Times essay that described a real life application of a scientific study on closeness, certainly a precursor to falling in love. In the study, pairs of strangers asked each other 36 questions. There were 3 sets of questions and each set contained increasingly personal questions designed to provoke self-disclosure and intimacy. After the Q and A portion, the study participants stared into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes.

The combination of these two activities was supposed to jumpstart a connection that would lead to a temporary feeling of closeness. The result: after the experiment, participants reported high ratings of closeness and at least one pair married. This research generated a firestorm of public interest and publicity, including commercial applications such as The Love Game and a number of apps.

Ever since I read about this study, I wanted to try the 36 questions with a romantic interest. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to do this on a first date. After all, you wouldn’t want to engage in this activity unless you liked the other person enough to entertain the possibility of a love relationship. And that would require at least one date and possibly more. When I read the original study by Dr. Arthur Aron, State University of New York at Stony Brook, I realized that my plan was in fact in line with his methodology since study participants were matched so they did not disagree about issues of importance to them.

I recently met a Mr. Z who I thought would be a good candidate for this experiment. If nothing else, it might help us know sooner rather than later whether love was in the cards for us. Join me in a lovely spring lunch of Herbivoracious’ Pan-Seared Pressed Tofu with Apples and Champagne Vinaigrette while I tell you about my research.

We agreed to proceed with the questions one recent evening after a glass of wine. Technically it was our 4th date. It probably would have been a good idea to start the Q and A at an earlier time since the process can take several hours but the moment seemed right at the time.

I had printed out the list of 36 questions from a follow-up New York Times article. Question number 1 was the only question I had peeked at prior to our evening. I thought it would be closer to the real experiment to not figure out my answers beforehand. Mr. Z hadn’t looked at the questions either.

As we made our way through the first set of 12 questions, I observed some interesting things about our responses. In some cases, our answers were less revealing than they might have been given the particular question. In other cases – such as answering what would constitute a perfect day – we had very similar responses (being outdoors – at the beach if possible – with someone special). And some of Mr. Z’s responses were touchingly revealing.

We easily named three things we thought we had in common and we listed a couple of the same characteristics. The most stressful question for me was trying to tell Mr. Z my life story in 4 minutes. I ended up elaborating on things that “came out of the blue” from my childhood, leaving less time for more significant events that occurred in adulthood.

Given the time constraints of this exercise, I provided a resume of my life with occasional emotional components thrown in. Before beginning this 4-minute monologue, I set a timer on my phone and Mr. Z gave me updates on how much time was left, which I found stressful. I had a flashback to when I took the SAT test (a long, long time ago in another galaxy) and started to feel anxious because I felt that my biography was skewed and incomplete.

It was getting later and question #12 about magically having a quality or ability was quickly dealt with. I wondered if Mr. Z was taking the quiz seriously. Of course we managed to intersperse questions with kissing (probably invalidating the experimental procedure).

Mr. Z had to leave and so we stopped the Q and A at the end of the first set. I have been under the weather and not able to get together with Mr. Z since that evening. I’m interested in seeing whether we continue with Set 2 of the questions. I’m game but I want to be sure he is.

My conclusions about the 36 questions as a vehicle for fostering intimacy (to be updated when/if the experiment is completed):

  • Wait until you’re sure you like someone enough to entertain the possibility of falling in love with this person – unless your goal is to strictly get to know the person better. This could even be an exercise at a family gathering or at a party.
  • Try to schedule the session in the early evening or afternoon so you can complete the entire list.
  • Observe reactions and responses to the process – sometimes this can be as revealing as the answers.
  • Take notes later to remind yourself of your partner’s answers. With so many questions, you might want a cheat sheet to help you remember what was shared.
  • After the experiment – or instead of – develop your own questions. Questions I have used with previous dates:
    • What is the craziest thing you have ever done?
    • Have you ever had an epiphany about your life and as a result changed course or direction going forward?
    • Can you describe a time when you overcame a fear?
    • What’s your philosophy of life?


7 thoughts on “The 36 Questions: An Experiment about an Experiment

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