Mind & Body

How the "Misattribution of Arousal" Can Make You Fall In Love

Emotions can be complicated — romance even more so. One moment you're on a dinner date, and the next moment you're waiting by the phone wondering where it all went wrong. According to science, there might be a secret to guaranteeing you'll land a second date. It's all in your choice of first date.

Height-ened Emotions

Common knowledge says that you have a specific menu of emotions: you feel fear when you perceive a threat, attraction when you see a beautiful person, nervousness when you're about to do something that could fail. But in fact, all of those emotions are just different labels for one feeling that scientists call "arousal." In every case, your heart beats fast, your breathing quickens, your pupils dilate, and you may start to sweat. In fact, those physiological responses start up in your body long before your brain gets the message to give that feeling a name. If you're walking through the woods and see a bear, you'll name that feeling "fear"; if you're walking through the woods and see a gorgeous stranger, you'll name that feeling "arousal." Don't take our word for it — they've done the experiments.

In the 1970s, researchers Donald G. Dutton and Arthur P. Aron arranged the famous "love bridge" experiment where a group of single men would walk across two different bridges — either an unsteady, 450-foot (140-meter) long cable bridge suspended over a 230-foot (70-meter) ravine, or a sturdy wooden bridge that was only 10 feet (3 meters) up. After walking across, each male participant was approached by an attractive woman, who explained that she was doing a project for her psychology class on the effects of exposure to scenic attractions on creative expression. After she asked the men to complete a questionnaire and write a short dramatic story about a picture she provided, she wrote her phone number down and said they could call in case they had further questions.

But the stories the men wrote weren't a test of creativity — on the contrary, based on what their stories entailed, researchers were able to identify how aroused they were by the woman. The woman also gave one name to those on the unsteady bridge and another to those on the steady bridge so that when they called — and they certainly called — the researchers knew which bridge they had crossed. In the end, they found that the men who had crossed the suspension bridge, and therefore experienced a high level of arousal, were more likely to call the woman and to write a story that contained some sexual overtones.

Why did this happen? The group that went across the shaky bridge experienced arousal induced by fear and misunderstood it to mean that they were attracted to the woman, a phenomenon known as "misattribution of arousal."

Two for "Saw 12," Please!

Considering the results of that study, you may want to buy tickets to a horror movie or a roller coaster park for the best chance of getting a second date. The strong feelings those activities will trigger in you and your date could create a sensation of romantic fireworks that can have little to do with the activity itself. While a romantic candlelit dinner may sound nice, according to science, you should save that for when things get more serious. Instead, think something a little more exhilarating like rock climbing, a carnival, a haunted house, or anything else that might get your adrenaline pumping.

One caveat: in the study, the researchers also tried the same experiment with women crossing the bridge and encountering an attractive man. Both groups were just as likely (or unlikely, as the case may be) to call the man. In the end, this tactic may be more effective for someone trying to win a man's heart than a woman's.

Once you use this trick on that special someone, continue to strengthen it further with this fascinating read by Michael S. Sorenson: "I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Misattribution: How We Mistake Fear for Love

Written by Annie Hartman June 27, 2018

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