The Science of Love
In 2015, Mandy Len Catron was writing a book on love when she went on a date herself. Her object of desire was a casual acquaintance from work about whom she’d always wondered, what if?
The foibles of modern dating were something she’d been grappling with in her work. Sure, the Internet proffered a bewildering array of potential suitors, but it divulged way too much information on them. All those random data points with little context, she found, were busting the romantic vibes. Could there be a better way?
As they sat in the bar, Catron told her date about a study she’d just read about that suggested a shortcut to intimacy. In the exercise, two strangers were tasked with asking each other a series of increasingly intimate questions, 36 in all; at the end, they were asked to stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes.
“Let’s try it,” he said. She Googled the questions and they spent the evening patiently working through them; the bar filled up and emptied again. When they completed the interview, they walked to a nearby bridge. There, at just past midnight, they took a deep breath and stared into each other’s eyes for four minutes.
When the New York Times published her account, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” it became one of the most widely shared Modern Love columns to date. Wrote Catron, “Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”
Well, maybe. The researchers who had created the protocol Catron used would argue that falling in love is a complex biological process with deep, evolutionary roots. In other words, love — the kind that compels people to tattoo their lovers’ name on their necks — can’t solely be a choice. But that doesn’t mean that science can’t help us game the system.
The questions Catron used were originally formulated as part of an experiment designed by psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron in the early ’70s. The couple met in 1967 when they were both graduate students in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and fell quickly, and utterly, in love. Arthur was fascinated by what was happening to them. He was also looking for a research subject that few people had examined in a laboratory setting in the past. “I thought,” says Arthur, “‘well, what about this?’”
With Elaine as his collaborator, Arthur began studying the science of human intimacy. Through decades of research, they have shown that the scientific method can indeed help us understand how and why love works, how to foster it, and how to keep it vibrant. But first, the Arons had to prove that this singular emotion — the thing that poets, philosophers, songwriters, novelists, all of us have been pondering for millennia — could be quantified.
To avoid the emotional baggage that comes with established relationships, which could corrupt their research, they had to figure out how to conjure up love in the lab. And so, they developed their now legendary get-close-quick scheme.
In one early experiment, the Arons randomly created heterosexual couples who were instructed to spend an hour and a half asking each other dozens of prepared questions drawn from “The Ungame,” a 1972 board game. After the interview, participants were then told to stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes, a method inspired by the scientific observation that couples in love spend more time gazing at each other.
It was, by and large, a success: One experimental couple — two research
assistants from the psychology department — later got married.
That was interesting, but a bit too messy for the Arons’ purposes, says Arthur, who is now a psychology professor at SUNY Stony Brook. “We didn’t want to create romantic relationships because people might be in other ones and that might create problems.”
What they actually wanted was a practical methodology for generating close, non-romantic relationships. In a follow-up experiment, the Arons pared down the questions to the now-famous 36 and dropped the staring; the new protocol could be done in 45 minutes. The procedure worked well enough that 35 percent of the random pairings met up, as friends, in the weeks after the experiment, but not so well that anyone got married. The results were published in a 1997 paper, “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness,” which Catron discovered when she was researching her book.
So what are those magical questions that gently lead us through those emotional gates typically locked to strangers? The first third are deliberately light and quirky mood-setters, as in: “If you could invite anyone in the world to dinner, who would it be?” “Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?”
The next 12 questions probe deeper: “If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?” “What is your most terrible memory?”
By the time you reach the last set, you’re primed to bare the messiness of your inner life: “How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?” “Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.”
The Arons’ protocol revealed that indeed we can jump-start real intimacy. But their work also shed light on the mechanisms behind building long-term relationships. According to their 1997 paper, developing a close friendship is a process of “sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure.” They found that successful human connections thrive on continued sharing of mutual confidences and equal vulnerabilities.
Of course, the initial phase in any close friendship depends on the belief that your partner likes you, and that she or he is similar enough to you in a few key ways. The 36 questions, therefore, are key in establishing that foundation; in each round of questions, you’re encouraged to find something you have in common with your partner, then say something positive about them, and finally, tell them what you like about them.
So intimacy can be fast-forwarded through the first dates, the second dates, even the third dates, if you know how to do it. But what drives people to go on that date in the first place?
The urge for romantic love is as primal as hunger or thirst, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, author of The Anatomy of Love, and frequent collaborator with the Arons. “It is a basic mating drive that evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago,” she says. Without it, our species wouldn’t survive.
Fisher, whose research marries neuroscience to anthropology, says that human love is one of three interconnected neurobiological systems required for reproduction: The love drive, the sex drive, and the attachment urge. “These three brain systems operate in all kinds of ways; they can operate together and they can operate separately,” she explains. We needed these three mechanisms in order to facilitate pair-bonding long enough to raise our big-brained and very vulnerable babies. Adds Fisher, “A partner is in many respects a survival mechanism.”
Fisher’s research shows that the love-as-hunger analogy is more than just semantic. The brain centers that produce primal feelings of hunger and thirst, she says, are in the base of the brain — the earliest and deepest part of it. That’s also where we find the source of romantic love, specifically, in the ventral tegmental area, or VTA, where we generate dopamine, the neurochemical stimulant implicated in our brain’s reward, craving, and want system.
When we fall in love with someone, she says, we not only produce more dopamine and other feel-good neurochemicals, but the decision-making parts of the brain become less active. Fisher says that for this reason, the science agrees with the poets — the grip of romance can cause a kind of madness.
To get to this fevered state, several elements need to come together, not the least of which is your willingness to be in love, the other’s attractiveness, and even their scent. According to Fisher, there’s something else in play, what she calls our “love map,” a constellation of foundational traits that we are unconsciously looking for in a potential partner. These love maps are inscribed by our childhood experiences, she says, but grow more defined and sure in our teenage years, as sex hormones start to flood our brains.
“What we found in the brain is that romantic love can be triggered instantly,” she says. That’s how science explains love at first sight: “This brain system is like a sleeping cat,” says Fisher. “It can be awakened at any time. What Arthur’s experiment does is put you into a situation where you’re more likely to trigger that brain circuitry. To wake up the cat.”
While we can’t entirely control who we love, the circumstances, the moment, our unconscious love maps, all play a critical roles. But that doesn’t mean that the 36 questions can’t also play a part.
Catron’s Modern Love column catapulted the Arons’ love-making protocol into popular consciousness at exactly the moment that a new generation was grappling with the wonders, and limitations, of finding mates in the digital age.
In her experience with online dating, Catron says, users have unprecedented access to a huge number of potential partners, upping our chances of finding a match. But the trade-off, she says, “is that with this enormous breadth is a lot less depth. You have all these really shallow interactions with people, and you don’t have this sense of accountability that people used to have with dating . . . you don’t have mutual friends . . . you don’t have any obligation.”
The 36 questions, she suggests, provide an antidote to the artificiality of a match that started online. “[The interview] is a mechanism for creating that depth of connection that otherwise you know you’re unlikely to have,” Catron says. And we appear to need meaningful connections more than ever. Last May, a Cigna survey of 20,000 Americans found that only 53 percent of us have significant, face-to-face interactions with friends or family every day, and that 43 percent of us sometimes or always feel that our relationships are not meaningful.
The questions also offer something else: The idea that we, in the age of big data, can have some control over the messy process of falling in love, that there’s a kind of formula for making it happen, says Catron. Even our language — falling in love, lovesick, lovestruck — makes it seem like something that happens to us, that we have no agency. “I don’t think we have full control over love,” she says, “but I think it’s much more flexible than we imagine it to be.”
Even if we can’t really control love, perhaps we can be more deliberate about cultivating the relationships we do have. Thanks to Catron’s story, the Arons’ 36 questions have created a broader phenomenon within American culture. “It has been really cool, because I feel like there is so much value to it,” she says.
Catron often hears from people who are using the protocol to foster deeper connections in all sorts of settings, including groups of friends who have used the questions on long road trips or in the workplace.
One woman, she says, used the questions to connect with her estranged sister who was in hospice: “She didn’t know what to do, so she would go to the hospital and do some of these questions,” Catron says. “She wrote about how meaningful that was to do with her sister before she died.”
The protocol has also since been used in many social engineering contexts, including efforts to foster closer relationships between police officers and community members. Recently, Arthur and his colleagues used the methodology with an incoming class of freshmen at a large university. The experiment was designed to determine whether becoming closer to a member of a different ethnic group resulted in the individual feeling more positive towards that group as a whole. It did.
“People have been talking about using it for Trump supporters and Trump opponents,” Aron says, laughing.
The phenomenon the Arons started has taken Arthur somewhat by surprise: “We never designed this for use in the real world . . . but people are looking for ways to be close to others.” That may be more true now than ever before.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer living in London.