36 Questions

36 Questions That Can Lead to Love

Five decades ago, Arthur Aron and Elaine Spaulding, a pair of psychology students at the University of California at Berkeley, shared a kiss one day in front of the main study hall and immediately fell in love. The experience led to a mutual fascination not only with each other (they’re still together and now married), but also with the mysteries of love itself. At the time, Aron was looking for a subject on which to base a research project and thought, Why not do a study on romantic love? With help from fellow researchers, including Elaine, he set out on a journey that led him to try to answer this question: How might we, in a laboratory setting, find a way to create instant intimacy between strangers?

He brought pairs of strangers into his campus lab and tried to get them to like, or possibly even love, each other. Gradually, Aron discovered a powerful force that seemed able to produce the desired effect: not a love potion, but a well-crafted and strategically designed series of questions. Aron would give a list of the same questions to each member of the participating pairs. The partners would then take turns asking each other the questions and responding.

Some questions were more effective than others. Through trial and error, Aron was able to determine the ones that best helped participants share personal information and gradually begin to feel a greater mutual appreciation. He eventually came up with 36 questions, to be used sequentially.

The list began with more superficial queries (e.g., Who would be your ideal dinner guest?) and then built to much more personal questions probing deep feelings about hopes, regrets, dreams, core values. When trying to build a connection with another person, Aron discovered, “you don’t want to share too much, too fast. What works best is back-and-forth self-disclosure that increases gradually.”

When people questioned each other in this way, the results were surprising—even to Aron. Most of the pairs of strangers came out of the session with highly positive feelings for each other; one couple later married. Aron’s research, and his 36 questions, gradually began to gain notoriety in the science world.

When a Researcher’s Study Goes Viral

Then Aron’s 36 questions went viral in early 2015, when a New York Times writer penned a story with the irresistible headline: “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” In the article, writer Mandy Len Catron recounted her own experience trying out the 36 questions with a college acquaintance. The result caught her by surprise. “Because the level of vulnerability increased gradually, I didn’t notice we had entered intimate territory until we were already there,” Catron wrote. She and her college pal did, indeed, fall in love, and are still together.

What makes certain questions so powerful when it comes to building stronger relationships between people? I asked Aron this question when I interviewed him for The Book of Beautiful Questions, which contains a large section on how questions can help form connections. He told me that when questions are formulated and asked the right way, they can do a few key things. “First, just by asking, you’re showing that you care about the other person,” Aron said. “Second, the question encourages that person to reveal something about themselves. And then that creates an opportunity for you to respond to what they are revealing.”

In short, questions show interest, create understanding, and build rapport. Those are three strong legs upon which a relationship can be built and supported. The 36 questions used in Arthur Aron’s experiment are wonderful examples of open-ended, deep questions. They demand that the person on the receiving end actually think about the answer. They’re also designed to be self-revealing; as such, they serve to quickly illuminate where there might be common values, shared dreams and hopes, and other forms of compatibility.

The full list of Aron’s 36 questions was originally published in an academic journal more than 20 years ago. More recently, the list has been re-published in The New York Times, Psychology Today, and other publications.

Below is the full list of questions, divided into three sets. The questions are supposed to be asked in the order presented here. Take turns asking/answering each question; it has also been suggested that the exercise can be more effective if you look into the eyes of your partner as you ask the questions.

Arthur Aron’s 36 questions

SET I
  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?
SET II
  1. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
  2. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  3. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  4. What do you value most in a friendship?
  5. What is your most treasured memory?
  6. What is your most terrible memory?
  7. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  8. What does friendship mean to you?
  9. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  10. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
  11. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  12. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
SET III
  1. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
  2. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
  3. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
  4. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
  5. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
  6. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  7. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
  8. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  9. 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 them yet?
  10. 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?
  11. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  12. 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.

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About the Author

Journalist and speaker Warren Berger realized that the majority of successful creatives and entrepreneurs he was interviewing over the years were great questioners. His wondering about “How can we all learn to do what they do?” led to this website and the writing of THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS and A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts here.

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