That study from Modern Love

The most recent entry in the NY Times’s Modern Love column has been getting a lot of traction lately, with good reason! It’s a fascinating exploration of a sticky academic idea about how to forge love, with a catchy headline to top it off.

In a nutshell, the study explores the idea that two people can fall in love simply by asking a specific series of increasingly intimate questions as well as staring into each others’ eyes for four minutes. Interesting hypothesis, right?

Mandy Len Catron’s piece isn’t exactly about the science of whether this actually works, as she acknowledges. It’s about her telling a beautiful story of her own blossoming love with her partner. But I think there’s a lot of value to be gleaned from the data she’s drawing from, which might help the rest of the dating world. Let’s geek out about it, shall we? 🙂

Intimacy needs a ramp-up

The study designed by Arthur Aron specifically presents questions in an incremental way, designed to start softer and get more intimate as you go. But even the earlier and middle-stage questions are hardly softballs. Take, for example, question 30: “When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?” This is clearly requesting an almost painful level of honesty.

What’s key, though, is that there’s a foundation established with each move. If you opened with this as Question 1 with a complete stranger, you’d be a rude asshole. But by adding it in as part of a series, you’re able to set the stage so it isn’t terrifying or weird to ask such a thing thirty questions in. The very act of treating the questions as a progression is sort of emotional foreplay, you know?

Contrast this with, say, the searchable database of someone’s answered Match Questions on OkCupid, which probe into loaded intimate subjects like sex right out of the gate, and which allow people to access deeply intimate information about you without any prior progression of sharing gentler stuff first or building rapport along the way.

Contrast this, too, with the harried, timer-laden conversation at a speed dating event, where you know you have a set limit on what you can learn about a person before you have to emotionally do-si-do over to a different partner to try and force intimacy on a tight timeline.

Contrast it with contrived messaging systems like eHarmony’s Guided Communication, where you’re encouraged to ask inane canned questions (that often get answered aspirationally instead of honestly) as a precursor to even composing your own original message along the lines of “hello.”

And of course, contrast it super-hard with the lewd pics and messages that so many women are exposed to right out of the gate when men first contact them, from Craigslist to Tinder and everything in between.

Many “advances” in dating technology and behavior fail to build intimacy gradually. Instead, they attempt to force it via an artificial system that tries to convince you it’s based on science and must therefore be effective, despite any awkward feelings you probably have about the process.

Open questions > Multiple choice

OkCupid’s pride and joy is its lazy-ass Match Question system, which is nowhere near as helpful a predictor of compatibility as they’d have you believe. You learn so much more from people via actual conversation without bookends than you do from binary answers—the very act of having a conversation (in person, no less!) is far more indicative of potential compatibility than any radio-button response can predict.

eHarmony and Match are guilty of similarly reductive sins, as are many other dating platforms. Sometimes this is along the line of “select three activities you enjoy from this pre-populated list” and sometimes it’s asking someone to write you back via a convoluted multiple-choice quiz. These sorts of boilerplate answers and self-description tags are never going to provide as much insight as a thoughtful response to a thought-provoking question.

These people DO NOT feel that they are accurately represented by this pile of data! They're right. (Credit: Shutterstock / Creativa Images)

These people DO NOT feel that they are accurately represented by this pile of data! They’re right.
(Credit: Shutterstock / Creativa Images)

In person > in writing; real-time > asynchronous

Intimacy is fundamentally more likely when the act of asking the question occurs in person, when you’ve already met each other and gotten over the weirdness of encountering a stranger and turning them into a familiar.

You also share a better sense of your real self when you’re communicating, as in writing messages on a dating site, rather than describing yourself, as in writing a typical (bad) dating profile. Even with a great well-written profile, you can still tell more about someone from their messages than their profile.

Ever get the sense that someone is an amazing communicator via email, only to discover that they suck on the phone or over IM? Ever realize that someone’s witty texts take them four drafts because you can see that stupid animated ellipsis for like a year before they actually click send? 🙂

We’re more like our real selves when we aren’t in this mode of polishing and editing our answers before revealing them; the immediacy of communicating in person shows a more faithful representation of who we really are and how we really think. It’s sort of like how you always hire job candidates based on interview performance and overall impression, not JUST their CV, ya know?

This is a good thing, I swear—you’re better off dating people who like Real Life You, not just Witty Email You!

We’re all asking the wrong questions

Yes, probably me included, though I smugly think I ask better questions than most matchmakers or dating sites. 🙂 But how many profiles or services ask you what your relationship with your mother is like (24), or what your most terrible memory is (18)?

Really, at its core, this study seems designed to encourage two perfect strangers to become storytellers—each answer is a tiny Easter egg showcasing someone’s upbringing, values, ambition, secrets, fears, insecurities, and joys.

The questions are wonderfully broad (again, here’s the full list) and as a set I think they hold so much potential for connection. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Tinder challenges emerge from this—I’d love to see folks find others who have read the article and are game to set up a date as an experiment of putting it into action.

If you do this, you should drop the study’s author a line and let him know how it goes. And, you know, cc me if you feel like it. 🙂

How can you apply this study to your dating life?

If you happen to meet people who happen to mention in the natural flow of conversation that they happen to have also read this Modern Love article, then you can just ask them if they want to have an experimental Study Date! But if it’s not quite that serendipitious, then you have to come up with subtler ways to integrate the spirit of this study.

Be open to going on in-person dates. Be open to taking time with those dates, and leaving room for conversation that you didn’t expect. Be willing to ask and answer difficult or emotionally heavy questions, while at the same time remembering that it won’t work as well to demand answers to important topics (like whether you want to have kids) before even swapping hellos.

Give each other your full attention. Make eye contact.

Retain a healthy amount of skepticism for dating professionals, sites, apps, and systems that promise to break compatibility down into a simple checklist or algorithm. Remember that opening yourself up, being vulnerable and honest, and actually talking and listening is more likely to forge a connection than any app or website.

In a nutshell, use dating sites and apps and events and whatever to source potential connections, but remember that the real connection part happens when you interact with people. In person. Face to face. So get out there! [icon-heart]

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