Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Can asking each other a structured set of questions really help two people fall in love? That's the premise behind the famous "36 questions that lead to love," an experiment popularized by a viral essay and inspired by real psychological research on how intimacy forms.
Today, people are bringing the quiz with them on first dates, and marriage therapists assign the activity to couples looking to emotionally reconnect. Here's how the 36 questions work and the science behind them.
What are the 36 questions to fall in love?
The so-called 36 questions to fall in love are a set of questions developed in the 1990s by psychologists Arthur Aron, Ph.D., Elaine Aron, Ph.D., and other researchers to see if two strangers can develop an intimate connection just from asking each other a series of increasingly personal questions. The experiment became massively popular after the New York Times Modern Love column published an essay by Mandy Len Catron in 2015 about her experience trying the questions with an acquaintance whom she went on to marry.
The 36 questions: Question list.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
Would you like to be famous? In what way?
Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
What would constitute a "perfect" day for you?
When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
Is there something that you've dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?
What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
What do you value most in a friendship?
What is your most treasured memory?
What is your most terrible memory?
If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
What does friendship mean to you?
What roles do love and affection play in your life?
Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people's?
How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
Make three true "we" statements each. For instance, "We are both in this room feeling..."
Complete this sentence: "I wish I had someone with whom I could share..."
If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
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.
Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven't you told them yet?
Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
Share a personal problem and ask your partner's advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
The research behind the 36 questions.
The 36 questions were developed by a team of researchers led by Arthur Aron, Ph.D., and Elaine Aron, Ph.D., two psychologists (husband and wife) who have spent decades researching how attraction, intimacy, and romantic love form. In 1997, the team published a paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin describing a series of experiments in which they asked pairs of strangers (or, in one version of the experiment, pairs of college classmates) to take turns asking each other each of the 36 questions. At the end of the experiment, the pairs were asked to spend four uninterrupted minutes staring into each other's eyes.
"One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure," the Arons and their fellow researchers write in the paper. "The core of the method we developed was to structure such self-disclosure between strangers."
The questions are designed to help two people gradually reveal more and more about themselves, as well as identify ways in which they're similar to each other and say the things they like about each other out loud. This combination of self-disclosure, perceived similarities, and being open to getting close to each other is what's been found to accelerate the creation of feelings of closeness and intimacy.
That said, as Elaine Aron notes in a Psychology Today blog post, the questions weren't specifically designed to help people fall in love—they're simply about creating closeness. The questions have been used in many other psychology studies, from helping married couples get closer to each other to helping people reduce racial prejudice.
Can two strangers fall in love with the 36 questions?
The 36 questions are designed to help two strangers develop feelings of closeness and intimacy. They may or may not "fall in love," but the Arons' research has shown they are effective at creating intimacy.
"We should also emphasize that the goal of our procedure was to develop a temporary feeling of closeness, not an actual ongoing relationship," the researchers write in the paper.
They conclude, "Are we producing real closeness? Yes and no. We think that the closeness produced in these studies is experienced as similar in many important ways to felt closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop."
The 36 questions have helped at least some couples fall in love, though others haven't had as much luck using them. Catron, the writer behind the viral Times essay, went on to marry the man she did the experiment with. Another pair from one of the Arons' original experiments with the question set also got married, and the entire research team attended the wedding.
"I wish I had statistics on couples that have resulted from it, but I know of at least a few where the people contacted me directly," Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love column at the Times, said in a 2016 WBUR podcast episode about the essay.
Here's how the 36 questions worked out for other people who've since tried the experiment:
"At the end of the night, I felt as if I knew this guy better than I know my best friend. ... While I didn't fall head over heels in love that night, I wouldn't mind getting to know this person better. Do we have a second date? I don't know yet." —Liu Kai Ying, via Zula
"[The person I tried this with] and I are not dating... I think the exercise actually inhibited us. It made the relationship seem more serious than it was. What should have been something new and experimental became something with a sense of urgency. It made the DTR ('define a relationship') seem immediately necessary as opposed to us taking the time to discover what made us a good match." —Julianna Young, via Zappos
"Before the date she said, 'We probably don't have all that much in common, but I'll meet up anyway.' After the date her position had moved to the opposite, that we might even have too much in common. I think that the exercise made for a very satisfying experience, and so far the two times that I've tried this have made for WAY better dates than any others I've been on this year." —a user on Reddit
"I liked the structure of the questions, but at the end, things fell apart. I couldn't shake the fact that we were so different. I enjoyed talking and having a script made me feel like I could relax without having to make any stupid heavy-handed flirty small talk. But the at same time, if I was so stoked on not having to flirt, wasn't that a red flag? The same sexless reason I had enjoyed doing the questions also underlined the fact that I didn't really feel a ton of physical chemistry. The worst was when [the guy I did this with] said he wouldn't want to do the questions again with someone else." —Carina Hsieh, via Cosmopolitan
"There were not a lot of new revelations. But we both cried over things we shared. It felt like real intimacy. It felt like a sign we were going to last. Instead, our relationship barely made it three months." —Alicia M. Cohn, via the Washington Post
"It's impossible to guess how long the amped-up intimacy will last. But I'm more certain than ever that I'm with the right person." —Melanie Berliet, via Salon
"Turns out we already knew all the answers to the questions we asked, even the more intense ones. And the ones we actually did not know turned into debates of 'really, would you really approach it that way? Don't act like I don't know you.' And we ended up going to bed cranky because of all the bickering." —Meagan Shapiro, via The Odyssey
"I tried it a year ago on some guy on a second date. We're currently living together." —another Reddit user