Attraction Hacks: Misattribution of Arousal Theory

Grid of the prohibition symbol with one heart eye emoji in the middle

Ready for your weekly dose of spicy psychology content? Look no further than the ~misattribution of arousal theory~. Misattribution of arousal is defined as “the idea that physiological arousal can be perceived to stem from a source that is not actually the cause of the arousal.” 

The baseline assumption here is that there is always an objective biochemical cause for the sensations we feel, but it’s possible to give different cognitive labels to the same sensation—causing different conscious experiences of the same thing. 

For example, nerves and excitement are two distinct feelings. One is negative, and the other is positive. But both have the same physical properties: a faster heart rate, shakiness, and a rush of adrenaline. Your cognitive interpretation of the context thus determines whether you feel good or bad about the very same sensations.

Here’s how it  relates to relationship psychology: the misattribution of arousal theory can be used to induce romantic and sexual attraction in certain (heart-racing) situations—you misattribute your arousal to the person rather than the situation.

Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted a famous study in 1974 commonly known as the Capilano Suspension Bridge Study, where they found that people were more attracted to a person when they met on a dangerous suspension bridge than when they met the same person on a safer, less scary bridge

They had the same woman approach multiple men on both bridges, where she asked them to write a story and gave them her phone number for them to follow up with if they… “had any questions” 😏. They found that those who were approached on the suspension bridge were more likely to use sexual imagery in their writing sample, and more likely to call her back to ask for a date. 

Dutton and Aron attributed this difference to the context: the men who were approached on the scary bridge were already nervous about their own safety—causing them to feel high heart rates, dizziness, and sweaty palms. It turns out that those same physical sensations are also present when we’re attracted to someone. And our silly little human brains can’t always tell the difference, making them believe they were more attracted to the woman than they might have been otherwise.

The takeaway is this: if you ever want to tip the scales of attraction in your favor, bring your next date to a suspension bridge. Or go skydiving. Or, you can just work out together too! Anything that raises their heart rate, whether it be fear or physical activity, can trick their brain into thinking you’re the reason that their heart is fluttering (or that they might pass out). Don’t go overboard, but keep the misattribution of arousal theory in mind to boost attraction, whether you’re trying to trick yourself or your crush.