We tend to think of love as a spontaneous, random, and uncontrolled phenomenon. However, falling in love is neither spontaneous nor random, and it is very much under our control. We fall in love only when we are ready and prepared for a romantic relationship. Our choice of whom to fall in love with is not arbitrary. Highly educated people will rarely fall in love with people who are not. Very rich people will rarely fall in love with poor ones. Love is also not instantaneous. It grows gradually, which is why we can easily opt out of a love affair at its early stages, while moving out of a long-term relationship is much less under our control.
But can the seeds of love be planted synthetically? In other words, can we breed love in the laboratory?
In 1997, Arthur Aron and his colleagues claimed to have done precisely this. In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they described a laboratory experiment that induced strangers to fall in love in a 45-minute session. Each pair of subjects entered the lab from different doors and were seated facing one another. They then had to answer 36 increasingly intimate questions, from “Do you want to become famous?” to “When was the last time you cried in front of another person?”
The second stage of the experiment involved the two subjects staring quietly into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Aron and his team compared this treatment group with a control group in which couples also met for 45-minute sessions, but were allowed to interact freely. The pairs in the treatment group reported stronger feelings of closeness and intimacy; one couple even got married six months after the experiment.
What made Aron’s procedure so effective in generating closeness, intimacy, and eventually love? I believe that the mechanism which induces these feelings can be summarized in two words: commitment and self-esteem. When two individuals exchange intimate information with one another, two things happen:
First, the transmitter of such information endows the receiver with power that can potentially be used against him or her, especially as the transmitter reveals details that normally wouldn’t be told to a stranger. This power at the hand of the receiver incentivizes the transmitter to work harder to gain the sympathy of his/her partner. Openness serves as a collateral placed by the transmitter at the hand of the receiver with a promise to give a greater chance for the relationship, generating a higher level of commitment on both sides. Such a commitment is essential for the success of early relationships. Most dates fail to develop into a serious relationship not because of lack of compatibility, but rather because of lack of commitment. Without commitment, even a perfect match is doomed to fail. Arranged marriages in which couples are wed a few days after seeing each other for the first time, aren’t less stable than love-marriages. Couples in such marriages grow to love each other after getting married because they are committed to seek this love.
The other force that plays a role in the inducement of love in Aron’s experiment is self-esteem. A large part of falling in love with someone includes falling in love with ourselves. Being loved reshapes our self-esteem and reinforces our confidence in our social skills, which are necessary to maintain a romantic relationship. The need to be constantly reaffirmed of these skills is evolutionary. When we “succeed” on a date, we feel empowered; when we fail, we are frustrated. This motivates us to keep working on our romantic skills, without which breeding becomes much less likely — something that our genes don’t “like” at all. The exchange of intimate information boosts the receiver’s self-esteem. If my partner is willing to share with me some of his or her most intimate secrets I must be doing well in forming relationships. This feeling of self-esteem doesn’t just make us feel good; it also attracts us to the person who makes us feel this way. Indeed, in Aron’s experiment, subjects were instructed to reveal intimate information about themselves. Hence, their doing so should impinge nothing on the receiver’s skills. Yet, as happens with most laboratory experiments, participants perceive the interaction in the lab as authentic and real, which allows them to take credit for their partner’s openness.
In Aron’s experiment, both partners assume both roles. They are both receivers and transmitters of intimate information. Hence, the two forces of commitment and self-esteem operate on both of them, yielding intimacy.
Aron’s experiment provides us with an important insight that has implications far beyond the confinements of the laboratory. It’s a valuable insight for those of us starting a new relationship or those of us who have been in one for decades. Openness is not always easy. It may reveal weaknesses, and may put us in a vulnerable position, but it ultimately strengthens relationships. It makes partners feel better about each other, even when intimate information flows one way — and certainly when it flows in both directions.