Last Saturday, I overheard someone mention The Argus to his friend, so naturally, my ears perked up. The day before, The Argus had published “Sexy Singles and Cute Couples,” our annual alliterative article in which we interview people about being single or being in a relationship. We talked to four couples, so this person guessed that they were the only four couples in the school. (He wasn’t quite right—I can think of at least one more—but his point stands.)
Nina Stender ’16, Amanda Li ’16, and Emily Freedman ’16 wanted to change that state of affairs. So on Saturday, they hosted “Love Actually,” an event that was part blind date, part psychology experiment.
“I’ve been talking to both Emily [Freedman] and Amanda [Li] about doing this for a while, and we just decided…that Valentine’s Day was a good time where people felt sad and lonely and wanted to connect with people, because that’s what Valentine’s Day is,” Stender said. “It makes people feel miserable.”
The idea behind “Love Actually” came from a couple of articles Stender had read about a social psychology experiment led by Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
In that study, people met in pairs and answered a series of 36 questions that became increasingly personal. The second-to-last question, for instance, was: “Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?”
When she first encountered the study, Stender was attracted to these difficult questions.
“I thought they were cool,” Stender said. “They were things we want to talk about, but we don’t know how to.”
“Aron’s experiment was not intended to get people to find love,” his wife, Elaine, one of the researchers in the study, wrote in a Psychology Today blog piece.
“To do a good job of that we would have needed to do a study with people who, above all, came into it really wanting to fall in love, and we were not in that business!” Elaine Aron wrote. “More important, we would need to follow-up over time to know if the relationships lasted, an expensive process, and funding research on love is not easy.”
Instead, the study’s purpose was to learn more about how close relationships—from love to friendship—form. For instance, other researchers, according to Elaine Aron , have found through a similar process that having close friends of another race or ethnicity can reduce prejudice.
Six months after Aron’s first pilot study, a couple that met in the study married and invited the lab to the ceremony. Then, writer Mandy Len Catron wrote about the experiment in The New York Times and mentioned that her adoption of the experimental procedure also helped her to fall in love. The Times titled Catron’s piece, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.”
Following in this tradition, Stender, Li, and Freedman called their event “Love Actually —No, Like Actually.” Their Facebook post, like The New York Times, called the study’s questions “36 Questions to Fall in Love.” And 148 students (including me) walked to Exley Science Center in 10-degree weather—a number Freedman can only attribute to one thing.
“People are desperate to find love,” she said.
To their credit, Stender, Li, and Freedman did not run the event only with the goal of getting people to fall in love. When their Facebook post referenced Aron’s study, it did so with apparent accuracy, saying the study found that sharing information with a partner is the best way to form close relationships. And a survey that Stender, Li, and Freedman emailed participants didn’t just hope the event would produce a temporary romance.
“Do you plan on pursuing this relationship further beyond the experiment?” the survey asks. “Would this be out of platonic or romantic interest?”
The “Love Actually” event served as something of a launch for SEGWAY, a social experiment group that Stender, Li, and Freedman started. The group intends to have more events like this one for strangers to meet each other.
“We want to have a personal interest meeting and see what ideas everyone has,” Stender said. “But personally, I think we’re most interested in experiments that help people connect and whether that’s through something related to romantic intimacy or just interacting with strangers who you normally wouldn’t come across or talk to, I think that’s definitely something I’m interested in.”
Events intended to create close relationships, Li said, especially intrigue her at Wesleyan University, because it is such a small school.
“[At a small campus,] you kind of know someone through someone else, but you never get a chance to speak with them or learn about them or get to know them,” Li said.
“Love Actually”—as well as future events—allowed students to get to know acquaintances. And hopefully, Stender said, those relationships will last.
“Related to the small school thing, it’s also nice because once you’ve connected with someone on an intimate level like that, it’s not like you’re never going to see them again,” Stender said. “You will have opportunities to come across them…. I bumped into a lot of people…after they had participated [in “Love Actually”] and they said they were sure they had made a really new friend.”