How hard is it to be in love with a complete stranger? According to Stony Brook University psychologist Arthur Aron, it’s as simple as a 90-minute, 36-question session. In his study, pairs of heterosexual strangers sat in the same room and asked each other a series of increasingly personal questions that fostered closeness. Several of the 33 pairs went on dates right after the experiment and one pair went to the altar six months later and invited the researchers to attend.
I don’t find the research that surprising. Each of us can find someone we’re attracted to any place in the world. I don’t think there is ever anything unconditionally special about someone else. There is no ‘one,’ but there can be someone you choose to love.
A few days ago, I was at Next House studying with two close friends, “Rachel” and “Aaron.” While a few others intermittently dropped in and out of the conversation, we were the three who stayed throughout the night. I’ll confess: our experiment deviated from the study right off the bat. For starters, we were a trio rather than a pair. We didn’t go through every question. We skipped around and chose not to answer some questions that we couldn’t think of answers to. Furthermore Rachel had done some of the questionnaire before and it was her idea that night to ask the questions.
We started off the night with a light question, #5: “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?” I sang yesterday in the shower, I said. Both Aaron and Rachel said they sang in their rooms yesterday.
We then skipped to #13: “If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?” I said I wanted to know everything about what my children were like. Rachel said she wanted the optimal prime factorization algorithm so she could crack every cryptographic code in the world. Aaron said he wanted to know what profession he would pursue. Having known the two for a while, I would say their responses were in line with the people I thought they were.
We moved onto #18: “What is your most terrible memory?” Rachel went first. She said her worst memory was when she was four and on an annual family drive to Maryland to visit relatives. Along the ride, Rachel and her family decided to freshen up at a rest stop. It was here that Rachel’s dad lost her in a crowd. Rachel panicked and ran back into the restroom area to search for her dad, to no avail. She then tried the parking lot, but because there were over a hundred parking spots, four-year-old Rachel had no recollection of where her parents had parked their car. So she took a seat on the pavement and cried. A sweet couple (who had met each other without Arthur Aron’s help) took Rachel to a security guard, who blared over the intercom: if you’ve lost her daughter, she’s by the McDonalds. As soon as they heard the announcement, Rachel’s parents came racing over and took her into their arms. Her mom never let her dad forget that day. She would harangue him about losing Rachel.
I went through my moment. I was driving home from school with my dad one night. It was around 9 p.m. and I was exhausted — socially, academically, and physically.
At a stoplight, my dad turned to me and said, Jing, your mother and I are buying life insurance. Those words forced me to consider the day when my parents are both dead and I’m alone because a lot of my relatives don’t speak English well, and I can’t relate to any of them. Just the thought caused me to despair. I could tell the story was becoming too dark because they were both silent. To lighten the mood, I said I would have to do my laundry, clean my house, file my taxes, live my life, and make my food. That’d be terrible. I already barely made it through IAP without a meal plan by ordering from Dominoes every other day. I joked that I would not be able to survive 20 years from now. They laughed and I continued the story: I got home, showered, sang a song, went to bed, and was fine the next day.
Aaron was the one who unfortunately shared the worst experience. When he was young, his mother, who was a devout Buddhist, told him she regretted starting a family rather than becoming a monk. While Aaron is now on terms with what she said, I personally didn’t think it was appropriate.
However, perhaps the most memorable question we answered that night was #20: “What does friendship mean to you?”
Rachel said she considered someone a friend if she could maintain a natural flowing conversation with said person after a significant time apart. Aaron said his friends were people whom he didn’t feel guilty ranting about his life to. As for me? I said friends were people more precious than romantic partners. You think more carefully about who you want to start a friendship with than who you want to go on a date with.
We called it a night after going through a few more questions. In the end, I wouldn’t say we were in love, though we did become closer to each other.