ICEBREAKERS ON STEROIDS: Testing the 36-question love potion

After two hours of bizarrely intimate questioning, we’d reached the dreaded final prompt – number 36. Stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes.

“I don’t think I’ve ever made eye contact for more than 30 seconds,” she said.

“Ahhh, I can’t even!”

And I couldn’t even, either.

Staring into anyone’s eyes – I don’t care whether it’s your best friend or your soulmate – for more than a minute is extremely weird.

There’s this inherent urge to glance away, and, on one level, I felt naked.

This pretty girl was analyzing my face’s details to the last freckle. At least, that’s how it felt.

So half the time I didn’t know what to do with my face. I wore an uncomfortably big grin, occasionally letting out a chuckle, as I played with my empty coffee cup.

More than that, staring feels taboo and just plain abnormal. But by now you’ve probably realized that this wasn’t a normal date.

What Mary Claire and I were doing was far more scientific and a lot more unorthodox.

I got the idea from the New York Times in one of their weekly “Modern Love” columns.

Scrolling through my Facebook feed, the click bait immediately caught my eyes. The headline read, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” It was around Valentine’s Day, so I had to read more.

Mandy Len Catron, a writing professor at the University of British Columbia and that week’s contributor, begins the column with, “More than 20 years ago, the psychologist Arthur Aron succeeded in making two strangers fall in love in his laboratory.”

To make a long story short, Aron’s study involved 36 questions that supposedly jumpstart intimacy.

Over drinks, Catron goes through the questions with a friend, and surprisingly, they do eventually fall in love. And while one case doesn’t prove the 36 questions’ effectiveness, there’s evidence from Aron’s actual study that does.

Six months after one of Aron’s studies, two participants were married to each other. Part of me, the skeptic, wanted to prove it all wrong. But at the same time, I wanted it to be possible – the 36-question love potion.

Fast forward a few weeks, and through a mutual friend, I’ve found a willing participant, a sophomore from Christian Brothers.

Before meeting, I knew four things. Her name was Mary Claire, she was over six feet tall, she had red hair and she liked art.

Other than that, I was in the dark. On the day we met, I wasn’t sure whether I should treat it like a date or more like some kind of a psychological experiment.

“Should I buy her drink for her, or is it not that kind of thing? Would she be okay with me recording her? What if it’s really awkward?”

These thoughts (and more) ran through my head, as I sat down across from this stranger.

But it really wasn’t that bad. Of course, I was super smooth, but I had other things going for me.

She arrived early, she bought her own drink, and when asked if I could record our conversation, she was completely agreeable.

And even in terms of awkwardness, after five minutes of talking to Mary, I began to feel comfortable.

The questions, which gradually increase in intimacy, create a sense of security, even though in retrospect, we were both divulging a lot of personal information for a first date.

When asked what my most embarrassing story was, I didn’t hold back.

As a kid, I was a pretty late bloomer, so I told her the stories of my Pull-Up Diapers and late night bladder control issues.

Then the questions got even more personal.

What is your most terrible memory?

“(My friend’s) leg got really big,” she said. “She went to the doctor’s and they said, ‘Oh, you have cancer.’”

First dates are usually nothing more than glorified small talk, but Aron’s questions got right

to the point. By the end, I knew a four-minute version of Mary Claire’s life story. I also knew she liked savory breakfast food, and that she was working on  a 5-by-5-foot art piece.

It was like an icebreaker on steroids.

We didn’t waste time talking about the weather.

All of it was interesting and relatable. Take question 12 as an example:

If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

“Okay, you know X-Men?” she said. “You know Jennifer Lawrence, the blue person?

“I’d want her (shapeshifting) ability.”

On the other hand, Aron’s questions occasionally forced us to compliment each other multiple times, and these more personal prompts began to rub me the wrong way.

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.

“I feel like if I say something, you’ll be like, ‘That was really weird,’” she said.

“You have nice hands. Is that weird to say? I already told you you’re cute, so you have nice hair.”

When it was my turn, I said, “I think you’re attractive and cute too, and I probably wouldn’t tell someone that randomly.”

I’d love to say that enumerating these compliments was easy, but we both seemed to qualify each one with “I don’t want to be weird, but. . .”

So you’re probably wondering if these questions – some fun and some extremely personal – led to the ever-elusive feeling of love.

The short answer is no.

After our two-hour question and answer, I wasn’t in love with Mary Claire.

But after all those questions, while I stared into her eyes, she definitely wasn’t the mysterious, red-haired stranger anymore.

I wanted to see her again, and I did – on a picnic date the following Sunday.

Previously published in the print edition on March 17, 2015.

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