The scientific formula for falling in love—and what happened when one woman tried it

Woman walks into a bar—with a simple scientific formula for love. What happens next will change how you think about dating, like, forever. In a thoughtfully penned New York Times essay that ran this past weekend (and went bonkers on some of our Facebook feeds), writer Mandy Len Catron recalled her experience testing out a science-based formula for falling in love—and what happened in the aftermath. 

It began when she stumbled upon an experiment which endeavored to make two strangers fall in love with one another. The study, conducted in 1997 by psychologist Arthur Aron, was entitled “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness.” In it, a group of heterosexual men and women (who didn’t know each other) were paired up, and took turns asking one another a series of 36 increasingly personal questions. Then they were supposed to silently stare into one another’s eyes for four minutes. (The 36 questions asked in the study can be found here.) That’s it. That’s apparently all it takes to fall in love (or deep, deep like), according to Aron’s findings. While all of the couples he studied grew significantly closer after the session, one pair married six months after the experiment. 

So last summer, Catron, a writing professor, decided to try this very experiment on her own with a male acquaintance whom she was hanging out with one-on-one (it just SOUNDS like a set-up for a rom-com, doesn’t it?). She writes, “Let me acknowledge the ways our experiment already fails to line up with the study. First, we were in a bar, not a lab. Second, we weren’t strangers. Not only that, but I see now that one neither suggests nor agrees to try an experiment designed to create romantic love if one isn’t open to this happening.”

Despite the obvious disparities between the study and Catron’s situation, something remarkably transformative happened over the course of the evening: through the 36 questions, she and her friend stirred up feelings of intimacy that would have normally taken them months to achieve. “The moments I found most uncomfortable were not when I had to make confessions about myself, but had to venture opinions about my partner,” writes Catron. “For example: ‘Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner, a total of five items’ (Question 22), and ‘Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time saying things you might not say to someone you’ve just met’ (Question 28).” 

Then came the staring part. The pair decided to stay true to this part of the study as well, and went outside to stand on a bridge in the night air and gaze at one another for four full minutes. Such an act seems deeply romantic, and at the same time, terrifyingly vulnerable. No speaking, no glancing away. Just full eye contact for four minutes. Catron describes the experience as being similar to the sensation when you repeat a word over and over again in the mirror, and it begins to lose its meaning and become nothing more than a series of sounds. “So it was with the eye,” she writes, “which is not a window to anything but a rather clump of very useful cells. The sentiment associated with the eye fell away and I was struck by its astounding 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.”

At the end of the allotted time, it was clear that the two had developed an interpersonal intimacy which hadn’t been present before. There was a connection between them now, built on more than the fact that they had both agreed to try out a social experiment. Catron muses that her favorite part of the study is “how it assumes that love is an action. It assumes that what matters to my partner 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.” The study asserts that the simple act of sharing, empathizing and exposing one’s feelings to another, is enough to cultivate a bond of love.

To spare you any more suspense: yes, the two did end up falling in love. (“I do love this guy—the one in the column. I am still, every day, astounded by his small persistent acts of generosity,” she later writes on her blog The Love Story Project.) And while such an occurrence is delightful on a warm, fuzzy level, it is also remarkable to take a step back and acknowledge that maybe love isn’t actually so complicated. In fact, maybe it’s the most basic thing in the world. The amazing thing is realizing that the rationalization of love doesn’t take away any of its profundity or sincerity or magic.

In Catron’s own gorgeous words, “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.”

(Image via Shutterstock)