After a series of failed first dates, filled with either awkward silences or forced conversation, it's tempting to give up. But, as The New York Times recently reported, researchers have been investigating the easiest way to get to know someone. They found that it may be possible to make strangers fall in love — as long as they ask each other the right questions.
The original study, published in 1997 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, used particular questions to help total strangers break the ice effectively. In the experiment, college-student volunteers were randomly assigned into 33 pairs.
Scientists gave some of the pairs a series of 36 increasingly personal questions to ask each other, starting with safer stuff like, "Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?" and, "When did you last sing to yourself?" These gradually progressed into questions such as, "Is there something you've dreamed of doing for a long time, and why haven't you done it?" and ended with some very real shit like, "Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing?"
The other participants got a less exciting series of "small-talk" prompts. These included such winners as, "Describe your mother's best friend" and, "If you could invent a new flavor of ice cream, what would it be?" Immediately after the 45 minutes it took to complete the tasks, participants separated from their partners and took questionnaires about their level of closeness with that person.
Although the topics may seem a little taboo, participants who asked the more personal questions said they became much closer with their partners than those who were stuck with the small talk. Sure, the authors conceded, digging into deeper topics isn't going to create those feelings of commitment and dependability a longer-term relationship requires. However, it could be a fast-track to the first steps needed to inspire those feelings down the line.
More recent research supports this idea. A 2006 study of pick-up lines found that participants responded more positively to opening lines that covered big topics and questions we may consider risky, such as views on generosity or culture. These were preferable to safe, rehearsed jokes or obviously empty compliments.
And, a 2011 study from OKCupid suggests that daters can use different types of questions to determine whether they're on the path to a relationship or just one night of fun. Predictably, the data here indicates that those who want to know about long-term potential should ask about movies, traveling, and big life decisions. However, those who are interested in a casual fling should simply ask, "Do you like the taste of beer?"
All of this suggests that once we've gotten our names out of the way, being able to quickly build real connections means asking progressively more probing questions. But, of course, feeling close is only the beginning — staying close is even more challenging.