The study is 20 years old, but I first became aware of it last week. In two days, I saw two different articles talking about falling in love and Dr. Arthur Aron’s “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness.” (As an interesting side-note, this Dr. Aron is married to Dr. Elaine Aron, who we’ve talked about in connection to her research on Highly Sensitive Persons [HSPs].)
Aron’s study wasn’t actually intended to explore the science of falling in love — it was designed to study closeness and included both men-women and woman-woman pairs (because the sample group, a psychology class, was 70% women). The couples who fell in love were an unintended side-effect. Mandy Len Catron’s recent article “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” which called attention back to this study, demonstrates that the principles Aron used for studying accelerated intimacy between strangers can be applied to romantic relationships.
It’s a fascinating idea, made even more fascinating when you read his published research paper (what can I say? I’m a nerd) and find out about some of his other results. Is there a difference in closeness for introverts and extroverts? Can you truly become close to someone in less than an hour? What is it that effectively increases closeness?
Introverts and Extroverts
One thing I found fascinating about this study, which wasn’t brought out in any of the other articles I read, was Dr. Aron’s observations on the role introversion and extroversion played. In Study 3, Dr. Aron had the participants take a Myers-Briggs test, then used those results to create extrovert-extrovert, extrovert-introvert, and introvert-introvert pairs. Some of the pairs were told the experiment’s goal was to get close to the person you were paired with, and the others were told the study was about “dyadic interaction” and their job was simply to work through the questions.
Extroverts reported closeness in all cases, but introverts only reported closeness when they were told that closeness was a goal. Dr. Aron says, “these data shed doubt on the view that introverts are less social because they are less skilled at getting close. Indeed, when getting close is made an explicit task, introverts became as close as extraverts.” When introverts want to get close to someone, we’re just as capable of socializing with them as extroverts.
Is It Real?
The experiment succeeded in producing a feeling of closeness between two people, but is that closeness as real as a relationship that develops over time? Of the 58 people who completed follow-up questionnaires, 57% had a least one more conversation with their study partner, 35% got together to do something, and 37% started sitting together in class. One couple got married 6 months after the study.
So are we producing real closeness? Yes and no. We think that the closeness produced in these studies is experienced as similar in many important ways to felt closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop.
Small Talk’s Not Enough
One thing Aron’s research found was that small-talk doesn’t do anything to bring people closer together (which I’m sure many of us have suspected for years). Talking about things people had done, what they liked and disliked, or other people they knew did not produce closeness between the two study participants. Here are some examples of the small-talk prompts used in his study:
If you could invent a new flavor of ice cream, what would it be?
- Do you like to get up early or stay up late? Is there anything funny that has resulted from this?
- What is the last concert you saw? How many of that band’s albums do you own? Had you seen them before? Where?
In contrast, the types of questions which did draw people closer together focused on how they feel about the way they live their lives, why they think the way they do, and what helps them connect with other people. Here are a few examples, and you can read the full list of closeness-generating questions at the end of his published research paper (which I linked in the intro), or by clicking this link.
- What would constitute a perfect day for you?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
Maybe there is a reason people devote so much time to small talk, which we introverts find so frustrating because we crave deep conversations. If we were having deep conversations with everyone, though, we’d feel very close to a lot more people. Maybe small talk protects us in a way, though it can also hinder genuine conversation.
Now that I’ve read about this research, part of me would really like to try it out and part of me thinks it sounds scary. I always thought that love is a choice, but there’s a part of me that feels like falling in love should just happen, then once you commit to the relationship you choose to keep loving each other. But Dr. Aron’s research indicates that you can choose who you become close to in the first place, and you can reach a level of closeness in less than an hour that approaches closeness you feel for people you’ve known many years. I think I’d be rather picky about who I went through these questions with, but it might be a great way to let yourself be vulnerable and open up possibilities in a relationship.