Can you create a sense of closeness or intimacy with a complete stranger? Psychology research says, yes, you can.
Nearly 20 years ago, a team of psychology researchers led by Arthur Aron (1997) conducted an experiment that demonstrated that you can create a sense of closeness or intimacy with another person simply by asking and answering a set of 36 questions together.
But was the closeness produced in the experimental condition the same as the real closeness we feel with long-time partners and friends?
The researchers say this about whether they produced “real closeness” or not:
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 procedures produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop. […] This procedure is like other experimental paradigms… it is useful as a means of creating a similar although not completely identical state.
In other words, for a laboratory setting, it produced something akin to the real closeness that we feel in our everyday relationships. But this closeness is not the same as closeness or intimacy gained through time and shared experiences alone — it lacks key components of what typically define closeness or intimacy in a relationship.
The 36 Closeness Questions
Instructions: Take turns reading each question aloud to one another, with both people answering the question posed. In the original experiment, subjects were asked to spend only 15 minutes on each set of questions, but you can spend as much time or as little time as you’d like.
The questions call for self-disclosure and other intimacy-associated behaviors — they are designed to increase your intimacy with the other individual. The intensity of the questions gradually increases, both within sets of questions and over the three sets. ((A New York Times article published last year on this research suggested that staring into each other’s eyes at the end of the questions was a part of the original experiment — it was not and there’s no research basis for doing so.))
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … ”
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about him or her; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about him or her already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told that individual yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
Aaron, A. et al. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23.