Occasionally, I like to dabble in what I call pop psychology. The latest fads or trends or theories offered to explain away why human beings do certain things. The weirder the theory the better it is from my point of view. With that in mind, something interesting crossed my desk, and could not be allowed to go un-noticed. It was weird enough, without being over the top. Nothing that was going to change the world, but it could provide a valuable insight into why we do what we do as people.
To put this into context, it all stems from a social experiment performed by New York psychologist, Arthur Aron, in 1997. Aron reasoned that human beings could be engineered to fall in love with anyone. Then he set out to prove his theory by conducting a study called The Experimental Generation Of Interpersonal Closeness. It sounds like a very self-important study title but basically it boils down to pairing up a couple of complete strangers. For his purposes, Aron selected a heterosexual man and woman. But there is no good reason to think that it wouldn’t apply to a same sex couple. He than gave them three quarters of an hour to answer 36 specific questions which gradually grew more progressively intimate. The questions ranged from, would you like to be famous? To, what if anything is too serious to be joked about? Aron wanted to see if closeness and intimacy could be created, in an experimental environment. After answering the quiz, the couple then had to stare into each other’s eyes, for four minutes, in total silence. Guess what? It worked. Yep, the man and woman who walked into his lab complete strangers, through separate doors, left together and fell in love. Six months later, they were married and all of the scientists in Aron’s laboratory were invited to the wedding.
Now I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like a load of malarkey. I might have been tempted to agree with you. Even if you accept that everything happened, as it was said to have happened, this was more to do with being a random, one off occurrence. The kind of experiment that could never be repeated in the real world. Lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Right?
Well, here’s where the story gets kind of interesting. Eighteen years later, along comes Mandy Len Catron, writer of the popular, Modern Love column, in the New York Times newspaper. She knew of Aron’s study. It crossed her mind as well, as to whether the result was a one off that could never be repeated. It occurred to Catron, that the only way of really answering that question was to replicate the study. But Catron’s twist is that she would be one of the participants along with a complete stranger. so that is what she did. At the end of her experiment, Catron wrote about what happened, so with a bit of judicious paraphrasing on my part I will let her tell the story. But, before we get into the details, I should point out a couple of disclaimers, relating to the Catron experiment. Firstly, it turns out that Catron’s ‘complete stranger’ wasn’t a completely complete stranger if you get my meaning. She says that they were University acquaintances who would occasionally meet at the climbing gym. Catron admits that at one time she thought there might have been a romantic possibility but it never came to anything. This was going to be the first time that the two of them would hang out together, as it were, to see what happened. Secondly, Catron first read of Aron’s study in the middle of a relationship breakup. She says: “ Each time I thought of leaving, my heart overruled my brain. I felt stuck. So, like a good academic, I turned to science, hoping there was a way to love smarter.”
So Catron was not exactly in a fit state of mind to be objective about the whole romance thing. In fact there might even be an element of wishful thinking, on her part, for a positive out come. I am not accusing her of anything. I am simply pointing out she was in a vulnerable state of mind. At the very least she would have been open to the possibility of having a relationship as a result of doing the experiment. Then again aren’t we all if we actively desire to be in a relationship? Anyway let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.
Catron says she happened to mention the Aron study to that University acquaintance I mentioned previously, more than likely when they were climbing a rock wall together. She told him of how Aron had engineered a heterosexual man and woman to enter his laboratory through separate doors, sit face-to-face, and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stared intently into each others’ eyes etc etc. Which prompted her University acquaintance to say: “ Let’s try it.”
Of course, Catron’s experiment was not an exact duplication of the Aron study. For a start, she and her ‘stranger’ met in a bar not a laboratory. Catron then googled Aron’s 36 questions and the two of them spent the next two hours passing an iphone across the table posing each question.
Caton recalls the questions began fairly innocuously. Would you like to be famous? In what way? When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else? But then they began to get more intimate. But this is where it gets a bit Mills and Boonish to be honest. Catron says she asked her acquaintance: Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common? “To which he replied: I think we are both interested in each other.”
Catron writes she” grinned and gulped her beer as he listed two more commonalities I then promptly forgot. We exchanged storiesabout the last time we each cried, and confessed the one thing we’d like to ask a fortuneteller. We explained our relationships with our mothers.”
Catron writes the questions reminded her of the infamous boiling frog experiment where the frog doesn’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late. Then quite poignantly, she says “With us, because the level of vulnerability increased gradually, I didn’t notice we had entered intimate territory until we were already there, a process that can typically take weeks or months.I liked learning about myself through my answers, but I liked learning things about him even more.”
In a moment of self candour, Catron says she and her acquaintance were so absorbed in their conversation, they had not even noticed that the bar, which was empty when they arrived, had filled up by the time they paused for a bathroom break.
Catron writes: “ We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances, but Dr. Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative. Ours was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend, exchanging the details of our short lives. At 13, away from home for the first time, it felt natural to get to know someone quickly. But rarely does adult life present us with such circumstances.”
Catron says the moments she found the most uncomfortable, in her experiment, were not the ones where she had to confess something about herself, but when she was forced to express an opinion about her partner. For example there was the question: Alternate, sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner a total of five items? and Tell your partner what you like about them and be very honest. This time saying things you might not say to someone you’ve just met?
Catron has a point. The questions are pretty out there and most people would struggle with the answers.
As Catron observes the majority of Aron’s research focuses on creating interpersonal closeness, investigating the ways in which we incorporate others into our sense of self. She says it makes it easy to see how the questions encourage what Aron called ‘self expansion,’ prompting answers such as , “I like your voice, your taste in beer, the way all your friends seem to admire you.” Catron writes what it does, is instantly make certain positive qualities belonging to one person, explicitly valuable to the other.
As Catron observes: “ It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time.”
Which brings us to the sixty four million dollar question: What was the outcome of the Catron experiment? Did it result in true love ever after? Or, just a night of passion and then see you later? It’s only fair to allow Catron to have the final word. However I really do think she has read one too many Mills and Boon books ; “We finished at midnight, taking far longer than the 90 minutes for the original study. Looking around the bar, I felt as if I had just woken up. “That wasn’t so bad,” I said. “Definitely less uncomfortable than the staring into each other’s eyes part would be. “ He hesitated and asked. “Do you think we should do that, too?””Here?” I looked around the bar. It seemed too weird, too public.”We could stand on the bridge,” he said, turning toward the window. “The night was warm and I was wide-awake. We walked to the highest point, then turned to face each other. I fumbled with my phone as I set the timer. “OK,” I said, inhaling sharply. “OK,” he said, smiling.
Ok. Now prepare yourself for the next bit because Catron lays it on with a trowel.
“I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, “ Catron writes. “But staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. “I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. “
Please forgive if I sound churlish. I don’t mean to be mean. Catron deserves much credit for having the courage to become the guinea pig in this experiment. She writes: “What I like about (Aron”s) study is how it assumes that love is an action. It assumes that what matters to my partner, also matters to me, because we have at least three things in common, because we have close relationships with our mothers, and because he let me look at him. I wondered what would come of our interaction. If nothing else, I thought it would make a good story. But I see now that the story isn’t about us; it’s about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known.”
Catron says Aron’s study taught her that it’s possible and pretty simple to generate trust and intimacy, the two feelings required for love to grow. Now I know you are itching to know, did it result in the two of them becoming an item? The answer is yes. Not quite wedding bells but they are in a relationship. So, has the Aron experiment, times two, answered some age old question? Can we indeed fall in love with anyone given the right circumstances? Maybe. A strike rate of two out of two ain’t bad.