Misattribution of Arousal: Sexy or Scary?

By Hank Graham

You may not feel the need to ask yourself the question posed in the title. After all, human beings can easily grasp their emotions, right? You know that the killer in the slasher flick causes you to experience fear, and you understand that a steamy night in the hot tub with your significant other brings creates a more sensual form of excitement. However, differentiating between romantic arousal and other emotions isn’t always so straightforward. One may believe they are aroused because of certain stimuli, but in actuality, they are experiencing a physiological response caused by something else. In the field of psychology, this phenomenon is called misattribution of arousal.[1] For an example, look at the following scenario:

Samantha’s friend tells her to meet a man at the local county fair for a blind date. Upon reaching the entrance, she is approached by her date, James. Samantha initially finds James to be plain-looking and somewhat dull. After some small talk, they decide to go on the most intense roller coaster at the fair. Samantha starts looking at James differently while in line for the ride. She begins to breathe more rapidly and notices her heart beating faster, which she attributes to a newfound attraction to James.

It is possible that Samantha suddenly fell for James. Yet, recall that she was waiting to get on an intense roller coaster. She likely felt nervous awaiting the ride, making her heartbeat faster. Rather than experiencing an attraction to James, Samantha was probably misreading her physiological response to her anticipation of the rollercoaster.

Perhaps the most notable study of misattribution of arousal was conducted by Dutton and Aron in 1974. In their experiment, men crossed either a frightening or non-frightening bridge. As they individually traversed the bridge, the men were approached by a female interviewer who would give them a brief questionnaire to fill out. Upon finishing the questionnaire, the interviewer would write down her name and number and give it to the man. The researchers found that men who crossed the frightening bridge were more likely to call the interviewer than the men who crossed the non-frightening bridge. They posited this was because the men on the frightening bridge mistook their fear as feelings of arousal toward the female interviewer.[2]

With the research of Dutton and Aron in mind, maybe you should be more suspicious of your feelings on first dates. If you watch a scary movie or go ziplining, that fluttering in your chest may signify a genuine attraction toward your date… or you could just be nervous.

[1] Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (Eds.). (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. SAGE Publications, Inc. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412956253

[2]  Dutton, Donald G., and Arthur P. Aron. 1974. “Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0037031.


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