In a recent episode of Big Bang Theory called “The Intimacy Acceleration”, the gang came across a technique that “makes people fall in love”. Sheldon, the perpetual skeptic, agreed to test the technique out with his best friend’s fiancé, Penny. Though this doesn’t sound like something a friend would typically do, given Sheldon’s “unique” people skills, no one– including Penny and Sheldon’s respective romantic partners– were concerned about this arrangement. So, what was the technique? It involved Sheldon and Penny asking each other a set of increasingly in-depth and personal questions capped off with four minutes of staring directly into each other’s eyes.
Spoiler alert…Penny and Sheldon don’t fall in love (good thing for their partners Amy and Leonard); however, they did feel closer to each other. Does relationship science help explain why they felt closer to each other? Sort of…There are two things at play here that have not been empirically assessed together in the context of falling in love: 1) the question and answer period, and 2) the staring into each other’s eyes. The question and answer activity is sometimes referred to as the Fast Friends task or the Interpersonal Closeness Procedure and was developed by a prominent relationship scientist, Arthur Aron, and his colleagues in the late 1990s to create closeness in the lab between strangers.1
The activity was initially designed to assess whether two strangers with differing viewpoints and personalities could feel temporarily closer to one another, in a relatively short amount of time. To try to get a sense of the task, imagine being in a room with a stranger for 45 minutes with a stack of increasingly personal question-cards. The researchers instruct you to take turns reading the questions to your partner and listening to their answers. The first question is “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”– seems easy enough. Fast forward 40 minutes, however, and now you are asking the stranger “When did you last cry in front of another person?”.
The researchers found that, on average, people in the “fast friends” condition tended to feel closer to the person with whom they were interacting after just 45 minutes (vs. a control group of pairs that engaged in small talk for the same 45 minutes). The task was designed as a tool to assess questions related to relationship development in the lab and, indeed, this procedure has been popularly used in many contexts (e.g., interracial interactions, “couple dates” in established relationships).2,3 However, it was not designed and nor has it been assessed as a means to fall in love within an hour. What about the eye staring part?
In a 1989 study, researchers reported that people who stared into the eyes of an opposite-sex stranger reported increased feelings of passionate love for one another.4 The thinking behind this idea is that if a person engages in behaviors associated with being in love, that this will influence their attitudes (in this case, perceptions of passionate love; e.g., “people stare into each others’ eyes only when they’re in love, so I must be falling for you!”). But there are a couple reasons why it might not be fruitful to find a clever way to make your unaware crush at work stare into your eyes: 1) there is limited evidence that it works; many relationship scientists would not feel confident labelling it as a sure fire way to fall in love, and 2) the research that has been done shows that it temporarily changes your evaluations but it does not necessarily promote long-lasting love.
Verdict: A one-hour technique for falling in love still remains elusive. Penny and Sheldon’s skepticism for “love in an hour” was well-founded. As for their friendship intimacy– well, that was accelerated.
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1Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R., & Bator, R. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,23, 363–377.
2Page-Gould, E., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Tropp, L. R. (2008). With a little help from my cross-group friend: Reducing anxiety in intergroup contexts through cross-group friendship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1080-1094.
3Welker, K. M., Baker, L., Padilla, A., Holmes, H., Aron, A., & Slatcher, R. B. (2014). Effects of self‐disclosure and responsiveness between couples on passionate love within couples. Personal Relationships, 21(4), 692-708.
4Kellerman, J., Lewis, J., & Laird, J. D. (1989). Looking and loving: The effects of mutual gaze on feelings of romantic love. Journal of Research in Personality, 23(2), 145-161.
Dr. Cheryl Harasymchuk – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Harasymchuk’s research relates to excitement, fun, and novelty, including the factors that promote and hinder these qualities in long-term relationships. She also focuses on boredom in relationships and how it impacts relationship happiness. She is an assistant professor at Carleton University, Canada, and teaches courses on research methods, social psychology, and close relationships.