Lab-grown intimacy: does one size fit all?

The other day, I found an article from the New York Times about Arthur Aron’s experiments in intimacy, and how the writer (Mandy Len Catron) had tried it for herself. The idea is that, given the right conditions, it is possible to make two strangers fall in love by going through a 3-stage conversation, followed by a 4-minute gaze into each other’s eyes. (The articles all say “stare silently”. I like “gaze” better.) As the article says, “The 36 questions in the study are broken up into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one.”

This sounded a lot like the products offered by various pick-up artists that promise “You can make any woman want to be your girlfriend”, if you just follow their “tried and tested” techniques and sequences. I am sceptical about such things. I am also sceptical that they are unique, which is the usual sales pitch: “no one else has come up with this stuff before”. If a psychology experiment from 20+ years ago came up with it first, paying a PUA for it is a mug’s game!

Catron reports that it does work, and she fell in love with her partner for the evening. But the crucial point was, “Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.” This is because (as she remarks near the head of the piece), “I see now that one neither suggests nor agrees to try an experiment designed to create romantic love if one isn’t open to this happening.”

That last point is one reason why PUA claims are pretty much bullshit, of course.

Today, in my daily feed email from them, I find that the Guardian picked up the story and asked two “guinea pigs” to try the experiment themselves and report back:

Bim Adewunmi: Written down, it doesn’t seem like much, but once required to think about these things – and so quickly – it becomes intense.

The usual route to intimacy is, among other things, winding and often accidental. This thing we are doing, in a largely empty restaurant, is deliberate and accelerated. But as the evening goes on, what was originally discomfiting becomes almost euphoric release.

The questions are probing – your most embarrassing moment, your favourite memory etc – and the great thing about them is how they force reflection. Not looking at the questions beforehand was a good idea, because I think I would have cooked my answers a bit.

Clearly, this is for work, and I imagine we are both squirrelling away quotes for our respective pieces. But I also made the effort to wear contacts – not my spectacles – and applied shaky eyeliner. I put on lipstick, dammit. At the very least, I was open to meeting someone romantically. Acknowledging that gives me a jolt.

– – –

Archie Bland: You are, briefly, on the floor marked “early flirtation”, and the one marked “endearing second-date revelation”; the trouble is, there’s no way of getting off. Nor does it seem to stop at “totally into each other” or “madly in love”, either, nor even “watching boxsets and only communicating in grunts”. Without really noticing it, we finally come to rest at “old friends with a slightly complicated history that they avoid talking about”. It’s not that I suddenly want to go out with Bim (or, I am pretty certain, she with me); it’s that I feel like I already have, and it meant a lot, but it’s definitely over. And we haven’t even got to the stare-off yet.

Both said that they had revealed things to the other that their best friends didn’t know yet. I thought of how sometimes internet exchanges have seemed intimate in this way for me, and how cautious I have learned to be about that sort of thing. I thought of the potential for using such a technique for grooming (had Arthur Aron derived from first principles the engineered solutions that those who groom others use?) Because I am, ultimately, a worrier, and a writer, and therefore trained to see the dark side in most things.

I also thought about the implications for my own haphazard attempts to find love. Could I use the concepts here to derive my own version of those PUA bollocks, or else use it to analyse what I’ve been doing so far?

So, I sat down and looked at the list of questions to see if (as usual) I’m unusual; to see if I could see a pattern in my (particularly online/dating site) interactions and which questions came up; and to see if I could draw any conclusions or wisdom from considering them. This means, to some extent, trying to imagine the conversation in which the questions arise (rather than just reading them off the screen), which may twist the results somewhat.

As it’s outlined, there are three levels of intimacy: Set I is the lowest and Set III the highest.

Set I should be the least vulnerable. But 7, 9, 10, and 12 in Set I are questions I would be very guarded about answering. Questions 3 and 6 would also feel very vulnerable to say to just anyone. Question 11 would be a big fat “nope” in a face-to-face situation. The scary thing is that it is possible some or more of these answers can be derived from my blogging so far. I think some of the answers would kill a date stone dead, if I answered honestly (“What are you most grateful for?” “I didn’t commit suicide when I suffered from depression” – yeah, that’s gonna lift the mood!)

It’s possible that being asked some of these questions and giving guarded answers, would just train me to be more guarded for the later questions. For example, Q.11: “Take 4 minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible” is an instant flag for me that I will choose which parts are okay to tell and which not. After that point, the openness is gone.

Some of the questions are things that I think about a lot anyway, so I have ready answers. Reading them, or imagining being asked them, made me smile with the familiarity and comfort of knowing the answers without even thinking. Not all of them are answers I feel okay with at “level 1” – for instance, being genderfluid, there’s an obvious answer to, “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?” Rereading the question, I think maybe they want something less physical (and less superpower-y), but I don’t get that chance to reassess in a conversation. (It’s also a question I would not answer openly, and would take some thought over). My point being, that’s something that I need to have a certain level of intimacy already, before I talk about it one-to-one.

For Set II, the first thing I noticed was “What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?” This has been one of my favourite questions to ask in an opening message on dating sites, because I believe it will tell me something about their values and life experiences, which in turn will help me gauge how easy it will be to get along with them. If it counts as a “level 2” intimacy, then maybe I’m going in way too fast? Indeed, several of the questions in Set II are among those highlighted as being good openers either in speed-dating or to address in a dating website profile (or opening message):

  • What do you value most in a friendship?
  • What is your most treasured memory?
  • What does friendship mean to you?
  • What roles do love and affection play in your life?

This implies that the people designing the advice are aware of intimacy but are perhaps accelerating it a little bit too quickly; while it’s clear to see the importance of some of these questions in gauging “compatibility” (whatever we mean by that) and shared goals from dating, at the same time the implication from this structure is that they are questions for a second date, or later on on a first date, than for an opening (even if you have shared stuff on your profile already).

The questions mentioned already are, of course, ones for which I have (by virtue of thinking about dating website advice and suchlike) already considered answers. The “greatest accomplishment” one especially – since I lead with it, I generally offer a reply as well.

I wondered if any Set II questions felt to me as though I would be more comfortable with them than some of those in Set I. The obvious one for me was, “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 think because most of the things that matter to me I either know, or am happier not knowing. There’s one question about my past that intrigues me, though, and it’s something easy for me to give up but that implies intimacy and naughtiness: “Did the first girl who offered to have sex with me mean it on any level, or was she purely teasing?” I think I’ve mentioned the incident on this blog before. I wonder about the “what-if” of that situation, but it’s so long ago now that the answer doesn’t matter. It’s an answer that (a) implies vulnerability and (b.) talks about sex, so (c.) gives the impression of intimacy. But in actual fact, it’s as easy for me as, “Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say?” (“Yes, because I want to be sure I get everything in and I can be quite forgetful if I don’t”)

Anything that asks about relationships to others (family, or mother – the last two) immediately make me defensive, because those are other people and without context and a much deeper conversation, I would not share that without professional-client confidentiality, at least.

Which leads me to my thoughts on Set III. Some of these questions are really intense. While “How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?” from Set II is the stereotypical psychotherapist question, several of the questions in Set III are questions that I might expect to come up at some point in a counselling or therapeutic relationship. Let’s face it, Q. 36 is the basis of counselling/therapy in a nutshell: “Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.” (The “ask their advice” is less relevant to counselling especially, but my understanding is that clients often do ask it; the answers come from the second part.)

Interestingly, there are still one or two that I would move up to Set II, or even Set I, because they are things I care about and am open about. For example, “What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?” and perhaps even, “Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.” – the latter is another staple of dating site/speed-dating advice, and of course, I have thought in the past about how to answer.

Some offer themselves to defensive answers: “Complete this sentence: ‘I wish I had someone with whom I could share …'” allows the glib, “My last chocolate,” for example. And yes, that was my instinctive reaction when I saw this question. I would probably try to laugh it off in a similar way in person, too.

The factor that makes me think I might not be quite so defensive about these questions is from the Guardian article: “In the end, the waiter has to kick us out; we are the last people in the restaurant. Admittedly, this is more because there are so many questions to get through … It is nearly midnight” The exercise takes hours to complete, and I bond well when given that amount of time with just one person as my focus. It’s like introvert socialising heaven! I do feel more relaxed towards the end, and less likely to be guarded, if I spend that sort of time sat with someone and sharing little emotional-communicative indulgences. I still think some of these questions are ones that would jolt me out, or have me feeling vulnerable in a threatened rather than intimate way.

The conclusions I have reached so far are to do with myself, and perhaps others who have reasons to be cautious around others. Survivors, or people outside of the “acceptable” ways of being (e.g. sex workers, or former sex-workers) might very well have reasons to think differently about the intimacy ratings of questions like these. Some of them are like landmines – for instance, my “grateful” answer is an unexpected explosion underfoot – because of the associations they have.

I also noticed that many of the questions, particularly at level 2, are the sorts of things that I would use to decide whether this was a person I wanted to fall in love with or not. It is one thing to say, “Yes, I am open to the idea of falling in love.” It is another to say, “I am interested in this person (and might want to fall in love with them)” (as Catron reveals was probably the case for her and her acquaintance). I am at once cautious and foolhardy with my heart in these matters. And so, I am cautious (and foolhardy) with some of these questions, too.

I want to come back to this, and see if I can construct a way of using the concepts in dating. For instance, does it hint at ways to construct a good profile? First message? and so on.

Can I, perhaps, come up with questions to fit in Set I to replace the ones that I disliked? What about Set II or Set III? What does it mean about my chances, that my sense of intimacy is perhaps not quite in sync with others’?

More research needed…


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Dating, Language, Science, SCW and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Lab-grown intimacy: does one size fit all?

  1. Pingback: Deriving web dating from 36 Questions | Valery North - Writer

  2. Pingback: Early indications from “36 Questions” online dating experiment | Valery North - Writer

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