Misattribution of Arousal: How Fear Can Be Mistaken as Attraction

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Misattribution of Arousal: How Fear Can Be Mistaken as Attraction

Nervousness, fear, and attraction are actually just different names for one emotion known by scientists as arousal / Photo by Mauricio Graiki via Shutterstock


How do people identify a heart beating rapidly, their pupils dilating, butterflies in their stomach and begins to feel sweaty? Most people would probably identify this as falling in love. However, these symptoms could also be exhibited when one experiences fear or nervousness. The Athens Science Observer states that these are the symptoms of anxiety that can mislead a person to think that they are attracted to an individual. This is why reality shows like Bachelor in Paradise and Love in the Wild make contestants go together on thrilling activities such as zip-lining, parasailing, and bungee jumping. Nervousness, fear, and attraction are actually just different names for one emotion. This emotion is known by scientists as arousal.

What is the Misattribution of Arousal?

According to iresearch.net, misattribution of arousal means that physiological arousal can be seen to come from a source which is not the real cause of the arousal. This can give a person different conclusions for the feelings they experience.

Stanley Schacter’s two-factor theory of emotion was the foundation of the idea of the misattribution of arousal. Schacter proposed that in order to experience an emotion, there must be a physiological arousal and an identification for it. He also explains that since physiological states are vague, people refer to the circumstance to be able to understand how they feel. For instance, if a person experiences their heart racing as their car nearly crashes into a truck, they will label that feeling as fear. However, if they felt their heart racing while bumping into their crush, they may attribute it as love. The two-factor theory of emotion suggests that emotional experience can be easily shaped because it partially relies on the way a person interprets the situation which triggered the physiological arousal.

The Love Bridge Experiment

Can humans really identify why they are feeling a particular emotion? Can they really determine the source of their feelings? Researchers have proven that humans can go through many emotional states without knowing the reason and even if they think they know the source of those feelings, youarenotsosmart.com explains. In many cases, they actually point out the wrong emotion and the wrong source of it. This was illustrated by an experiment conducted by the researchers Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron, where men mistook their fear for being attracted to a woman.

In Dutton’s and Aron’s study, they had 32 men volunteer to cross two kinds of bridges. One was a 140-meter rickety cable bridge and the other was a stable wooden bridge which was three meters in length. In the middle of both bridges, the same beautiful woman awaited them. As each of the men arrived at the center of the bridge, the beautiful woman would discuss how she was working on a psychology project that shows the impact of scenic attractions on creative expression. Afterwards, she requested them to answer a questionnaire. Then, she would show them a drawing of a lady covering her face. After that, she would ask the subjects to write the background story of the drawing. When the men had finished doing this, she told them that if they wanted to know more details about the study, she would be glad to discuss it over the phone if they called her in the evening. Finally, on a ripped piece of paper, she wrote her number down and gave it to each of the subjects.


Study participants who had crossed the unsteady bridge had a higher probability of calling the woman because they felt more arousal / Photo by Monica Mayayo V via Shutterstock


She introduced herself as one name to those who crossed the steady bridge and a different one for those who crossed the unsteady bridge to make easier for the researchers to identify the kind of bridge they went through. They would also base which bridge the men crossed on the type of story they wrote down. The result of their study shows that the participants who had crossed the unsteady had a higher probability of calling the woman because they felt more arousal. Their stories about the lady in the illustration also had more sexual nuances. Their arousal, which was prompted by their fear of crossing the rickety bridge, was confused for feeling attracted to the woman they saw on the bridge.

The Application

People’s misattribution of arousal can be used to one’s advantage. Instead of going to the usual candlelight dinner date, if they want to have more chances of going on a second date, it would be much better to invite someone to do adrenaline pumping activities such as watching a horror movie together, riding a roller coaster, entering a haunted house or rock climbing. Doing stimulating activities such as these can generate intense feelings and, as Curiosity puts it, can “create a sensation of romantic fireworks that have little to do with the activity.” One precaution though, it is noted to work better on men than women.



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