More than 20 years ago, psychologist Arthur Aron managed to get two strangers to fall in love in his laboratory.
Last summer I applied his technique to my own life. So at midnight, I found myself standing on a bridge and staring into a man’s eyes for exactly four minutes.
what is it to fall in love
let me explain Earlier in the evening this man had said it:
“I suspect that if you had a few things in common, you could fall in love with anyone. If so, how do you choose someone?”
He was an acquaintance from uni who I used to meet at the climbing gym and he’d thought, “What if?” I’d gotten a glimpse of his days on Instagram. But that was the first time we met in private.
“In fact, psychologists have tried to get people to fall in love,” I said, recalling Dr. Aaron. “This is fascinating. I’ve always wanted to try that.”
I first read about the study when I was in the middle of a breakup. Every time I thought about leaving, my heart overruled my brain. I felt stuck. Like a good academic, I turned to science hoping there might be a way to love you smarter.
I explained the study to my university acquaintance. A hetero man and woman enter the laboratory through separate doors. They sit across from each other and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare into each other’s eyes in silence for four minutes. The most embarrassing detail: Six months later, two participants got married. They invited the entire laboratory to the ceremony.
“Let’s try,” he said.
Let me concede how our experiment already disagrees with the study. First, we were in a bar, not a lab. Second, we were not strangers. Not only that, I now see that one neither proposes nor consents to an experiment designed to create romantic love unless one is open to the idea of doing so.
I have the questions from Dr. Aron googled; there are 36. We spent the next two hours handing my iPhone across the table and taking turns asking each other questions.
They began quite harmlessly: “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” And “When was the last time you sang to yourself? For someone else?”
But they quickly became more specific.
When asked, “Name three things you and your partner seem to have in common” –
he looked at me and said, “I think we’re both interested in each other.”
I grinned and swallowed my beer as he listed two more similarities that I promptly forgot. We shared about the last time we cried and what we would like to know from a fortune teller. We told about our relationships with our mothers.
The questions reminded me of the infamous boiling frog experiment, where the frog doesn’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late. We gradually increased our level of vulnerability, so I didn’t realize we had entered intimate territory until after we were there—a process that can usually take weeks or months.
I liked learning about myself through my answers, but I learned even more about him. The bar, which was empty when we arrived, had filled before we took a bathroom break.
I sat alone at our table and took in my surroundings for the first time in an hour. Then I wondered if anyone had overheard our conversation. If so, I hadn’t noticed. And I didn’t even notice when the crowd thinned and it got late into the night.
We all have a story of ourselves that we tell to strangers and acquaintances. But the questions from Dr. Aron make it impossible to rely on this narrative. It was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend, sharing the details of our short lives. At 13, when we were away from home for the first time, it felt natural to get to know someone quickly. But in adult life, we rarely face such circumstances.
The moments I found most uncomfortable weren’t the ones where I had to make confessions about myself, but the ones where I had to venture opinions about my partner.
For example: “Take turns naming something you see as a positive quality in your partner, five points total” (question 22), and
“Tell your partner what you like about him/her; this time be very honest and say things you might not say to someone you just found” (Question 28).
Much of the research by Dr. Aron focuses on creating interpersonal closeness. In particular, several studies examine how we include others in our understanding of ourselves. It’s easy to see how the questions encourage what they call “self-expansion.” Saying things like, “I like your voice, your taste in beer, and how all your friends seem to admire you,” makes certain positive traits of one person explicitly valuable to another.
It’s really amazing to hear what someone admires about you. I don’t know why we don’t complement each other all the time.
We finished by midnight, which took us much longer than the 90 minutes allotted for the original study. Looking around the bar I felt like I had just woken up. “That wasn’t so bad,” I said. “Definitely less uncomfortable than staring into each other’s eyes.”
He hesitated and asked. “Do you think we should do that too?”
“Here?” I looked around the bar. That seemed too strange to me, too public.
“We could stand on the bridge,” he said, turning to the window.
The night was warm and I was wide awake. We went to the highest point and then turned to look at each other. I fiddled with my phone as I set the timer.
“Okay,” I said, inhaling sharply.
“OK,” he said and smiled.I’ve descended steep slopes and hung from a cliff face by a short rope, but staring into someone’s eyes in silence for four minutes was one of the most exhilarating and terrifying experiences of my life. For the first few minutes I was just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until we finally settled in. I know the eyes are the windows to the soul, but the important thing in that moment was not only that I really saw someone, but also that I saw someone who really saw me. After accepting the horror of that realization and giving it time to settle down, I arrived in an unexpected place.
I felt brave and in a state of wonder. Part of that wonder was related to my own vulnerability, and part to the weird kind of wonder you get from saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and becomes what it actually is: an accumulation of noises.
So was the eye, which is not a window to anything, but rather a collection of very useful cells. The feelings associated with the eye evaporated and I was struck by its amazing biological reality: the spherical nature of the eyeball, the visible musculature of the iris, and the smooth, wet glass of the cornea. It was strange and exquisite.
When the timer buzzed, I was surprised – and a little relieved. But I also felt a little lost. I was already beginning to see our evening through the surreal and unreliable lens of retrospect.
Most of us think “falling in love” is something that happens to us. we fall in love We’re being crushed.
But what I like about this study is that it assumes that love is an act. She assumes that what’s important to my partner is important to me because we have at least three things in common, because we have a close relationship with our mothers, and because he lets me look at him.
I wondered what would come of our interaction. At least I thought it would make a good story. But now I see that the story isn’t about us, it’s about what it means to make the effort to know someone, which is actually a story about what it means to be known.
It’s true that you don’t get to choose who loves you, although for years I’ve hoped otherwise, and that romantic feelings can’t be developed out of convenience alone. Science tells us that biology plays a part; our pheromones and hormones do a lot of work behind the scenes.
However, I now believe that love is a much more flexible thing than we imagine. Arthur Aron’s study taught me that it is possible – even easy – to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings that love needs to thrive.
You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. Well we have. While it’s hard to fully appreciate the study (it may have happened that way), it has shown us a path into a relationship that feels conscious. We spent weeks in the intimate space we created that night waiting to see what might become of it.
Love didn’t happen to us. We love each other because each of us made the choice to do so.