I watched the latest James Bond movie last weekend, which was quite entertaining. There is one scene in which James Bond and Madeleine Swan (the latest Bond girl and a psychologist no less!) fight off an evil villain in the middle of a speeding train. After they prevail and toss the villain out of the train car, James and Madeleine look at each other as if to say, “Now what?” The scene then cuts to them making out furiously and taking off their clothes.
The scene reminded me of an interesting concept from psychology called misattribution of arousal. The basic idea is that when we feel physiological arousal in our body (e.g., increased blood pressure, shortness of breath), our minds try to figure out an explanation for the arousal. Sometimes we make a mistake in our attribution of the cause of the arousal, because many stimuli have similar physiological symptoms.
In 1974, Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted a study in which they had male participants walk across one of two bridges. Half the participants walked across a suspension bridge (that would induce fear) and half the participants walked across a sturdy bridge (that would not induce fear). At the end of the bridge was an attractive female confederate, who gave the participants a psychological test. At the end of the test, the female confederate gave the participants her phone number, in case they had questions about the experiment.
The key variable of interest was how many of the male participants called the female confederate. The researchers found that more men who crossed the suspension bridge called the female confederate than did men who crossed the sturdy bridge. The conclusion was that the men in the study misattributed the fear and anxiety they experienced from crossing the bridge as sexual attraction, and subsequently called the female confederate.
In the same way, perhaps James and Madeleine misattributed the fear and anxiety about their near-death experience in the train as sexual attraction toward each other, which compelled them to make love right away.
So… If you want to give yourself the best chance for your date to be attracted to you, Six Flags might be a better bet than a movie.
Discussion: What do you think of the concept of misattribution of arousal? Do you ever find yourself experiencing physiological arousal, but not being sure what the cause of the arousal is?