Closeness in the Real Life
This past Valentine’s Day social media feeds were flooded with Mandy Len Catron’s (2015) New York Times article2 discussing Arthur Aron’s (1997) study aimed at creating interpersonal closeness.1 The article focused on a series of questions, which involve increasing levels of self-disclosure, that help develop intimacy between people. Shortly following the publication of this article, peoples’ accounts of their own experiences with Aron et al.’s 36 questions spread all over social media.
Ms. Catron put social psychologist Arthur Aron’s questions to the test by spending 90 minutes answering them in a bar with a university acquaintance of hers and then by standing on a bridge staring into this man’s eyes. Before describing the outcome of her real life research replication, it is important to outline Aron et al.’s work.
Closeness in the Lab
In the Aron et al. (1997) experiment, pairs of individuals, over the course of 45 minutes, carried out self-disclosure and relationship building tasks that gradually increased in intensity. A common misconception is that the goal was to create a long-lasting relationship between the individuals in the study, but rather it was to create a temporary feeling of closeness.
In the first part of the experiment, individuals were put into pairs based on their attachment styles and attitudes. Pairs were given envelopes and told that they would be participating in a relationship building exercise. They were randomly assigned to either complete tasks that involved self-disclosure or small talk. A sample small talk question was, “If you could invent a new flavor of ice cream, what would it be?” Those in the self-disclosure task were presented with questions such as, “What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?” As you can see, the self-disclosure task required the individual to really think about him/herself as a person and potentially reveal important, intimate information to the partner. Those in the self-disclosure condition reported feeling closer to their partners after the study.
In the second study, the researchers followed the same procedure, but added additional manipulations. The first manipulation was that partners would not disagree on any attitude items and the second was that they either expected mutual liking (told that they were carefully matched) or did not expect mutual liking (told that random matches were made). Attitudinal similarity and the expectation of the participants liking one another didn’t help them achieve any more closeness than in the previous study. In other words…..This may have been because the relationship building tasks were so powerful that none of these additional steps even mattered.
In the final study, closeness was an explicit task. Specifically, participants were matched based on how introverted or extroverted they were. In one condition they were told that the goal was for them to get close to their partner, and in the other condition they were just told to follow the directions. The extraverted pairs reported getting closer in the follow instructions condition (compared to the introverted couples), but a major difference was not seen in the closeness as task condition.
Overall, these studies demonstrated that, in fact, people found themselves closer after the self-disclosure tasks than when just engaging in regular small talk. In studies 2 and 3, no differences were found between whether or not pairs were matched based on similarity of attitudes, the expectation that the partner would like him/her, or whether or not the goal to become close was made explicit.
Back to the Real World
Now Mandy Len Catron tried this in a bar, not in a laboratory setting, with a person she already knew. Over the period of two hours which she and her partner spent answering the questions, she reported feeling an increased level of intimacy. After finishing the questions, she and her university acquaintance decided to also try staring into each other’s eyes for a period of four minutes. This eye gazing technique is a manipulation that has been used in Aron’s other studies. Ms. Catron ends the article by saying; “You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. Well, we did. Although it’s hard to credit the study entirely (it may have happened anyway), the study did give us a way into a relationship that feels deliberate. We spent weeks in the intimate space we created that night, waiting to see what it could become. Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”2
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1Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, A. N., Vallone, R.D., & Bator, R.J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363-377.
2Catron, M.L. (2015, January 9). To fall in love with anyone, do this. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/modern-love-to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html
Dr. Marisa Cohen
Marisa, along with a colleague at St. Francis College, founded the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL) in Fall 2014. Research has focused on the development of relationships throughout the life span, including factors influencing mate choice and peoples’ perceptions of what makes relationships survive and thrive. Her specific focus is on how various relationship configurations impact the satisfaction derived from them.