36 Questions

(published 05 April 2015, The Standard)

 The 20 questions raised last week by the Makabayan bloc in Congress to President Aquino reminded me of a set of questions made popular earlier this year by a series of articles in The New York Times. 

These questions have nothing to do with politics, warfare or counter-terrorism. On the contrary, they are the most personal questions one may ever come across.

The idea is to put two people together in a room, have them take turns answering the 36 questions and then look into each other’s eyes for four minutes straight.

The questions, designed by psychologist Arthur Aron, are collectively called The Intimacy Accelerator and have been shown to make those strangers fall in love with each other. The actual name of the experiment is “The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness” and the paper was published in 1997 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

A pair of subjects in the Aron study were “successful”; they invited everybody from the psych lab to their wedding six months after going through with the experiment.

The questions get progressively probing, beginning with “given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”, moving on to “If  you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?” and “When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?” to describing one’s relationship with one’s mother.

(The questions are found in this link http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/no-37-big-wedding-or-small.html)

Mandy Len Catron, a writer and creative writing professor, decided to try the experiment so she could write about it. At the onset, her situation deviated from the conditions in the study. For example, the man she dated was not a total stranger - he was a casual acquaintance at the university where they both worked.  She was familiar with the things he posted on Instagram. They also were not in a lab but in a crowded bar. When she told him about the questions, he agreed to answer them with her.

Her essay “To fall in love with anyone, do this” appeared in the Modern Love column of the Times on January 9 this year.

They did fall in love, but Catron does not credit the experiment entirely. She noted that the questions did foster vulnerability, trust and intimacy, and at an alarming rate. She also discovered that while she liked learning about herself through her answers, she genuinely liked learning about her partner more.

And then, Catron’s essay -- and the questions -- became viral. Somebody developed an app for it. It inspired an entire episode of The Big Bang Theory (it’s Sheldon and Penny who answer the questions). Couples across the world tried the experiment on their own -- out of curiosity or desperation, one could not tell. Catron and her partner went out for pizza one night and found the couple next to them answering the 36 questions she had written about just weeks before. This column you are reading now is occasioned by those accelerators.

The main questions arising from those questions is whether intimacy can really be accelerated, or whether this was just another pop-psych scheme to generate reader attention.
It becomes easy to forget that the kind of intimacy fostered by the questions (okay, except the four-minute staring game) does not only apply to romantic dalliances but also to friendships. Can one really make friends with somebody and then feel as though one has known that person for a long time? Or meet somebody in a train, in “Before Sunrise” fashion, and be immediately drawn to him or her? 

Conversely, can one know somebody for decades and still feel like he or she is a stranger? 

The real point of the questions, Catron seems to say, is not to find a mate, per se, but to appreciate the joy of knowing and being known by another human being.

As to acceleration - time may not be necessary in forming/ occasioning/ generating closeness. It is, however, crucial in keeping them. Time will test whether the ordinariness and the dissimilarities that are bound to emerge can challenge the bonds formed in the beginning, no matter how powerful, or magical, or mind-blowing they appeared to be.

We don’t want the President’s handlers to get crazy ideas and make him answer these questions instead, if only in a bid to boost his sagging popularity. Horrors!

Happy Easter, dear readers. May you form the bonds -- and I mean all kinds -- that will remind you how beautiful it is to know, and be known.