Hundreds of comments, millions of hits and Facebook shares resulted from the New York Times Styles Section piece called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” by Mandy Len Catron. Tons more responses resulted from the paper’s followup publication of the 36 questions Catron used to test whether she could fall in love with the man she agreed to try the psychological experiment with.
Catron admits she fell in love with this man, without confirming that it was due to the series of Qs. Many responded that they definitely did not fall in love when they tried the questions, but that is not my point. I want to refocus the discussion on the source of attention—and motive—of the originator of these questions so carefully crafted to induce feelings of love.
The first 12 Qs are more catchy than invasive, a gently powerful hook. They show exceptional focus on what is entirely particular about the person questioned. Whom would you have as a dinner guest if you could invite anyone in the world? What for you would constitute a perfect day? Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die? and, If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
The Qs probe progressively deeper once the door has been opened: Why have you not done something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? What is your most treasured memory? Your worst memory? How do you feel about your relationship with your mother? When did you last cry in front of someone, or alone? – No wonder one commentor planned to use the list to increase her number of meaningful interactions in a day!
This list is no idle compendium, but the product of an extremely high quality attention arising from a professional study of human nature. As Catron acknowledges, it was compiled over 20 years ago by the psychologist Arthur Aron, who used the Qs successfully to make two strangers fall in love in his laboratory. Although Catron’s piece received much feedback from people who failed to fall in love after answering the questions, certain factors stand out that might have triggered the love interest of those who found themselves “falling.”
First, the questions are not mere pretexts to put forth one’s own views, mainly because each participant has to answer the same questions. They are also crafted to induce two people to become more open, honest, and vulnerable to each other—in a challenging but not too threatening way. They do not ask, for example, about income, past sexual relationships, politics, or people the subjects hate. They are also a primer for how to draw someone out while paying respectful, truly interested attention to them.
Still, you don’t need a clinical psychologist to give you a fine tuned list of inquiries.
Sometimes an opportunity arises that does not lead to falling in love, but a lasting bond gets created anyway. One such opportunity arose when I was in college, when I found myself sitting in a car full of students driven by a Caltech professor named Max Delbrück.
Carl, my date, was a Caltech student who sat in front next to the door, with me in the middle. The back seat held three or four more students, chattering loudly as we traveled toward a social event I’ve forgotten. But I never forgot my quiet exchange with the driver, whom I’d never heard of. (He was quite an influential biophysicist, I learned later.) I didn’t feel comfortable sitting next to the driver in silence, or ignoring him by talking with Carl. I was curious about his accent, so I asked where he grew up. Germany, he said.
It went on from there. Did he have any siblings? He was youngest of seven. Did he get along with them or were there conflicts? What were his parents like, and what brought him to the States? He answered everything with a no frills, eloquent candor. I don’t remember what he asked me, except that I replied just as frankly. He was not a professor at my college so I had nothing to lose, and I was terrible at small talk. Carl told me afterward that he couldn’t hear what Dr. Delbrück and I were saying over the din in the back seat, but he knew it was special because he’d never heard Max—who was known for a rather gruff manner—speak so personally.
After that outing Carl reported that Max made a point of asking him how I was doing. When Carl told me that Max was always helping others with their research—offering ideas that won them win Nobel Prizes while never winning one himself—I sent up a fierce prayer that one day Max would get the recognition he deserved.
Years later, when I picked up the New York Times and read that Max Delbrück had received a Nobel Prize, my heart glowed with joy and pride for my once and ever friend. That is the power of simple, honest attention.