Tapestry

Love tips from an expert: shaky bridges and electric shocks

Researcher Arthur Aron has some surprising ideas on how to make love work. Romance tip: increase your likelihood of falling in love by having someone threaten you with electric shock.

Arthur Aron — the psychologist behind the famous 36 questions that lead to love — delves into his relationship

In November 1974, Francis Gainsbury, 68, and his wife, 74, were outside Barking Registry Office in Dagenham, United Kingdom after their second marriage ceremony together. (Ron Henbury/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
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Romance tip: increase your likelihood of falling in love by having someone threaten you with electric shock.

No joke. This is science. 

Arthur Aron is a psychology professor at Stony Brook University in New York state who specializes in personal relationships.

He told Mary Hynes, host of CBC radio's Tapestry, about one of his earliest research projects — something he calls "the shaky Bridge study," conducted at the University of British Columbia.  

Aron and his team found that standing on North Vancouver's precipitous Capilano Suspension Bridge increased the likelihood people would be attracted to each other. It has to do with being frightened, a heightened physiological state. 

"You're more likely to be attracted to them because you sort of misinterpret your arousal — I don't mean sexual arousal, but your physical stirred-up-ness," Aron said.

That's where the threat of electric shock comes in: situations of tension can lead a person to "misattribute" the cause of their nerves, believing them to be elicited by attraction to a nearby person, rather than the thing causing the fear.

Aron said this effect only occurs if the subject finds the other person "reasonably desirable" to begin with. If not, the opposite can happen: the subject might assume their nerves were brought on by repulsion to the person standing nearby. 

36 questions to build trust

Beyond fear-induced crushes, Aron's research — and that of colleagues at other schools —  has identified various ways people can strengthen their bonds in romance and friendship. 

Aron's most famous study was the "fast-friends procedure," which aimed at determining if it was possible to engineer a strong feeling of closeness — platonic, not romantic — between two strangers in a lab. The procedure involves a series of 36 gradually more intimate questions that two subjects ask one another. It was a success. 

"It wasn't about falling in love. It was about getting close. Now, of course, if other things are in place, getting close certainly could help falling in love." 

It wasn't long before other researchers tested the 36 questions to see their effects on established romantic couples. 

Aron said those studies showed the "fast-friends procedure" does improve the satisfaction of long-term partners. But, he said, there's a way to make it even more effective: 

"If two couples do it as a foursome, that is, two existing couples … each [person] answers each question, then goes on to the next. We recently did a study showing that that not only makes you feel closer to your partner, but it actually increases your passionate love, more than doing it alone as a couple."

Arthur Aron is a psychology professor at Stony Brook University in New York state, and the creator of the "fast friends procedure." (John Griffin/Stony Brook University Communications)

Aron and his wife tried the questionnaire with another couple, "and it was wonderful," he said. 

Make happy moments happier

Another discovery Aron put to the test in his own marriage is something called "capitalization," developed by a team of researchers led by Shelly Gable of the University of California in Los Angeles. 

"It turns out that celebrating your partner's successes has a bigger positive effect than supporting them when things go badly," he said. 

Shortly after first hearing about the study, Aron said he had an opportunity to put it to the test: his wife had submitted a paper of her own to a highly-competitive science journal and was anxiously waiting for a reply. 

If you do something exciting ... passionate … novel, with your partner, that's associated with the partner and that reinvigorates things.- Arthur Aron

Aron was home when the response came the journal's editor and reviewers loved the paper. 

"I made a poster of that letter from the editor [and] put it on the front door for when she arrived home ... we had a great night," he recalled, laughing. 

Going from self-expanding to long-lasting

Another idea that Aron has taken from his own research and personally field-tested is the effect of novelty on long-term relationships. 

"What happens when a couple first gets together is it's very exciting … what we call 'self expanding.' You're forming something new. Your life is changing."

But after a while, the passion normally subsides. 

"So if you do something exciting ... passionate … novel, with your partner, that's associated with the partner and that reinvigorates things."

Aron said what's novel and reinvigorating will differ from couple to couple, but it has to be different from what they normally do. 

For him and his wife, Elaine, it can be a simple activity they haven't done in years, or something racier. 

"We were walking back from a play and we said, 'you know, we haven't walked into a bar and hung out in years and years. Let's do that.' And that was fun. Sometimes it's more exciting. We went rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. That was pretty exciting."

Aron and his wife have been together for more than fifty years, so he must be onto something. 

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