In the late 1990s, Professor Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University faced a dilemma. He wanted to study love. A psychologist fascinated with human intimacy, he was facing a serious roadblock – how do you compare two relationships? One pair might be in the deepest and most passionate love within weeks of meeting, another might live together for decades without getting that close. Some people display love gaudily and grandly but barely feel it, others would sacrifice everything for people they barely speak about. People lie to others and themselves about their feelings, particularly when there is a scientist probing them about it. Even when you get someone in off the street to participate in your research, how can you know they’re feeling the kind of love you want to investigate?

In face of all these complexities, Professor Aron tried a simple solution – to create human intimacy under lab conditions.

Aron took some undergraduates and asked them some very personal questions – Were they in a relationship? Were they religious? Political? What attitudes were important to them? They filled out personality questionnaires and described the nature of their closest relationships. Then they were paired up. Some pairs were created to be antagonistic – extroverts vs introverts, emotionally secure versus insecure, people who disagree about things they rated as very important to them.

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The aim of the study was to see which of these pairings developed intimate feelings for each other over the course of a carefully constructed conversation. The pairs were given envelopes of questions and told to answer them, as honestly as was comfortable with this total stranger.

Over the following forty-five minutes, participants found themselves revealing things they’d never said aloud to another person. The questions started easy, Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you have as a dinner guest?  But grew continually more intense, Is there anything that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it? until participants were answering questions like Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why? After answering all the questions, participants were asked to stare into one another’s eyes for four minutes.

Most of the participants answered all questions, and most of them ended up liking their participant partner very much. It made no difference whether the participants disagreed on important issues, it made no difference if the participants had much in common, it made no difference whether participants were told in advance that they had been paired with someone they would be expected to like.

Right after the study, the participants were asked to rate how close they felt to their participant partner. These ratings were compared to ratings other students had given of their closest relationships, and the results were very surprising. Not only did the study find no barrier to affection developing, on average the participants in this study felt as close to their participant partner as 30% of similar college students felt about the closest, most important relationship in their lives.

So that’s what it takes to fall in love – to learn some increasingly personal details about someone and tell them about yourself in turn. This study is particularly interesting as it overturns much of what we thought we knew about love – that people are attracted to like-minded individuals, and people they have things in common with. This study shows us that we aren’t more likely to fall in love with these people, we’re just more likely to give them the time of day.

There’s some debate to be had about whether lab-grown love is ‘real’. This study didn’t ask loyalty or commitment of its participants. Forty-three percent of the people who took part never talked to their participant partner again. But the closeness these people felt to one another felt as real to them as the closeness any of us feel for our ‘real’ friends, family, and partners.

For anyone feeling lonely this Valentine’s Day, it might be nice to know that you’re only forty-five minutes and thirty-six questions away from experiencing the closest connection you’ve felt in your life.

At least for a little while.

Aífe McHugh – Science Editor