Psychologist’s quiz rewrites Valentine script

Valentine’s Day is upon us, and lovers everywhere are preparing grand declarations of passion. But a survey has gone viral with the suggestion that there is a 36-question recipe for romance.

Valentine’s Day is here again, time to celebrate love in all its supposedly spontaneous, magical and elusive glory. But in the run-up to this year’s festival of schmaltz, a survey has taken the internet by storm with the claim that love’s mysteries are not as impenetrable as we like to think.

The survey comes from a study conducted 20 years ago. It suggests that a simple list of 36 questions can make any two people fall in love. Starting off simply with questions about the ideal dinner guest and how famous you would like to be, the quiz becomes increasingly personal, delving into family history, shame and even mortality. Finally, the would-be couple share four minutes of silent, uninterrupted eye contact.

It sounds like hocus pocus. But Mandy Len Catron, a writer for the New York Times, revealed last month that when she tested it out she duly fell head over heels in love. Catron’s article quickly went viral and soon people all over the world were trying the test.

From Cupid to Romeo and Juliet, love has long been associated with uncontrollable and unpredictable passion. Some find disheartening the idea that there is a straightforward recipe for romance. But that insight is not unique to this study. Arranged marriages, for instance, are based on the idea that stability, trust and family are the solid foundations for a lasting relationship — not the butterflies-in-the-tummy most westerners look for in a partner.

Common in Africa, India and some parts of the Middle East, arranged marriages are orchestrated by family members. Often the couple won’t have even met before their fate is decided. Those who marry in this way typically have much lower divorce rates than marriages in the western world.

Western culture often places a lot of emphasis on more unexpected beginnings to romance. The editor of a popular newspaper column on love says that a lot of people writing to her about their experiences focus on how they met their partner. This is because, she suggests, a lot of us believe ‘a good meeting story bodes well for the relationship’ — and a ‘good’ meeting generally means a fortuitous one.

What’s love got to do with it?

‘If there’s a physical attraction there, it’s possible to generate a connection with just about anyone’, one psychology professor says. There is proof that these 36 questions work, and arranged marriages clearly show that two people can be randomly put together and fall in love.

You can’t create love between two strangers, others argue. The idea that you could fall in love with just anyone diminishes one of the most important and human experiences we have. If love could be understood and manipulated that easily, we’d all be doing it.

You Decide

  1. Is love overrated?
  2. Do you think — under the right circumstances — you could fall in love with anyone?


  1. Devise a list of 10 questions you think important to discuss with someone in order to establish a connection.
  2. Think of a famous fictional couple and analyse their story. What do you think it says about the way we think about love?

Some People Say...

“You can’t blame gravity for falling in love.”

Albert Einstein

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this mean I can make anyone love me?
It’s not as simple as 36 questions, unfortunately. First, you would have to find a willing participant to do the experiment with, and although it has worked for some people, it’s definitely not a guarantee. The study can teach us a lot about how to build relationships, however, by asking questions, listening and being interested in what another person is saying.
What if I never find love?
Most people do have an important long-term relationship at some point in their life, so if that’s what you want it’s statistically likely you’ll get it. But even if you don’t, there are other things in life that can bring just us much fulfilment: friendships, family, careers, spending time on the things you’re passionate about. Romantic love is not everything.

Word Watch

A study
The original study was conducted in 1997 between strangers paired in a laboratory. Six months after the study, one of the couples — who had been thrown together randomly — did get married.
Eye contact
A 2007 study by the University of Aberdeen suggested that we are much more likely to be sexually attracted to somebody who holds direct eye contact.
The Roman god of desire. In modern culture he is generally a cheery figure, but in classical mythology his arrows of love caused agony to anybody they struck.
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo falls in love with Juliet literally at first glance, and against all reason, since her family are his mortal enemies. In the play, however, the implication of rarefied romantic love is slightly undercut by the fact that Romeo has already declared his passion for another woman.
Divorce rates
In the UK 42% of marriages currently end in divorce, compared to 1.1% in India. Of course, there are many other factors that could contribute to this difference, such as the varying acceptability of divorce.

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