By Advika Gudi
Most romantic movies follow a similar plot: the two protagonists who have known each other since they were kids fall in love one fine day, and everything changes. Their love is uncontrollable, unpredictable and elusive. They forget how to eat, sleep and even live without the other person. It’s a powerful feeling far beyond comprehension or logic.
But what if we could better understand this feeling? What if we could measure love? Is there a set of perfect words, or a perfect formula we could use to foster love between two people?
In 1967, Arthur Aron tried to answer these questions. He fell in love with his wife, Elaine, and they were both enamoured by the force that brought the two of them together. So they designed a study that would create and measure intimacy between two people. Their first test was so successful that the subjects got married and invited the whole lab to their wedding.
The subjects take turns asking each other a set of 36 questions which are split into 3 sets. Each set of questions become progressively more personal in an attempt to create a comfortable and intimate bond between the two subjects. This study does not intend to create relationships or love in general. The purpose is to create ‘intimacy’ between two subjects. In this study, intimacy is defined as ‘a feeling when each feels their innermost self is validated, understood, and cared for by the other.’ By being mutually vulnerable, the subjects begin to understand and empathise with their partner – the first step to intimacy and trust in a relationship.
In the study, the independent variable was the nature of tasks (how ‘intimate’ the questions are) and the dependent variable was intimacy. But how does one go about measuring a mysterious concept like love and intimacy? The researchers used the IOS (Inclusion Of Other In Self) scale which measures perceived closeness in a relationship. Seven venn diagrams with two circles (self and other). Participants choose from one of seven venn diagrams to best represent their perception of the relationship. In each venn diagram, the overlap of the circles (self and other) gets progressively larger, indicating that the closeness of the subject and their partner is increasing. 1 indicates no overlap between you and your partner while 7 indicates complete overlap (self and the other have a very strong and intimate relationship).
Aron started by asking test subjects about topics which would make the other person undesirable in a relationship. He then matched individuals who agreed on issues most important to them and created the expectation among both subjects that they would like each other. Here, becoming close and intimate was made an explicit task. The two subjects asked each other questions from each set and then moved to more ‘intimate’ sets after 15 minutes. The more ‘intimate’ a task was, the more self-disclosure was required of each subject. Questions ranged from ‘do you have a secret hunch about how you will die’ to ‘when did you last cry in front of another person’. Unsurprisingly, the more self disclosure sets showed considerably more intimacy between the partners.
In a second test, Aron matched subjects that disagreed on highly rated important issues and told subjects that intimacy or ‘closeness’ was not expected from either of them.Turns out leading people to believe they will like each other, or agree on important attitudes has little impact on the closeness of subjects. As Aron says, “being similar doesn’t matter very much, but believing you’re similar matters a huge amount”.
However, the study does acknowledge its own faults. Subjects were picked from the same university class, so similarity and an expectation of liking the other subject was inevitable, no matter how much Aron tried to control for it.
This study isn’t significant because it created the ‘36 questions that lead to love’ or because it can ‘curate’ and ‘measure’ an elusive concept like love and intimacy. It’s important because it teaches us something incredibly profound about love – that it is a choice. By choosing to be vulnerable, we create room for ourselves and for others to be heard, understood and accepted. If two people believe that they are similar, even if they aren’t, and decide to take the leap and share every single part of themselves, love eventually comes around.