Can we engineer friendship?

Isolating the variables of genuine connection

(via Paul Spella for The Atlantic)

In 2015, one New York Times article took the dating world by storm. “The 36 Questions That Lead To Love” detailed 36, progressively intimate character and experience-based questions like “Would you like to be famous?” “When was the last time you cried?

The questions were based on a study called “The Experimental Generation of Personal Closeness,” which found that mutual vulnerability can foster intimacy — and maybe, just maybe, love. *Cue romantic accordion*

And so the gauntlet was thrown. Couples new and old took up the 36 Questions’ banner, attempting to spark love in wine bars the world over. Of course, the article’s title was a bit misleading — these kinds of questions create connection, not romantic love, per se… But, the science behind it is rock-solid: “Reciprocal, personal self-disclosure” is a surefire way to develop intimacy.

There is one factor that the study ignored: Play. This year, design firm IDEO ran a similar experiment with two added hurdles: the participants would be 70 years apart in age — and they would never meet in person.

So, they created The Department of Super Secrets

The program was a new take on pen pals geared towards two of this pandemic’s most socially vulnerable groups: children and senior citizens. The goal was to see if they could build empathy and connection in isolation — independent of age, gender, or location.

Each pair of pen-pals, one 4th grader and one senior, were given 5 low-stakes, but highly personal “secrets” to share via letter and no info about their partners’ age or location. They were also encouraged to share playfully: The Super Secret supplies included markers and glitter; the questions were phrased lightheartedly (e.g. “share the secret of your most embarrassing moment”).

Introducing… The Department of Super Secrets

Sure enough, when tested after their time with the Department of Super Secrets, IDEO found that the pals had “…increased their empathy scores, especially their ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.” IDEO notes that play was crucial in bridging the age gap, helping participants “sneak behind” the unconscious biases that buffer our day-to-day thinking (e.g., “old people are boring” or “kids don’t understand deep emotions”).

So, how can we think about these findings? In true tech fashion, we broke it down into an equation:

Connection = (Reflection x Exchange)^Play

Put simply, genuine connection is the result of self-reflection and mutual exchange — all raised to the power of play.

Reflection: IDEO calls this “introductions from the inside out.” Tapping into our own experience is its own reward. Tuning into ourselves allows us to tune in to others; to see the common threads we might otherwise miss due to our bias and emotional walls.

Exchange: Sharing these reflections and experiences with someone takes bravery and trust. When that trust is reciprocated we not only feel supported, we give ourselves the opportunity to genuinely relate to one another. Ironically, the experiences that are most formative (an embarrassing moment, heartbreak) are often the most universal.

Play: The great amplifier. The “play factor” is the reason that two kids can feel so connected after a day on the playground without ever knowing each other’s names. The level of reflection and exchange may be low, but their play factor is sky-high. Conversely, it can be a reason that, though we might know a lot about our coworkers’ personal lives, we don’t always consider them our “friends.”

The Point: The science of making friends is fascinating, but in practice, it feels totally natural — when we open ourselves up to let it happen.

Speechless is an organization that uses Improv Thinking to help people be themselves and be heard. Visit for more info.

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