Awesome Arousal

15.08.2016 |

Episode #9 of the course Attraction science by Jake Teeny


We’ve all been there, struggling to come up with plans for a good date with our romantic interest. You want it to be memorable but comfortable, fun but not crazy. So here’s my professional recommendation: take your date to a have their blood drawn.

Researchers brought male participants into the lab and had them casually converse with a female confederate (i.e., an experimenter in disguise). However, for half of those participants, there was a subtle change to the experimental procedure: they believed they’d have their blood drawn at the end of the session.

Amazingly, those who thought they’d be stuck with a needle reported that the confederate was significantly more attractive, and consequently, they would be willing to work much harder to secure her affection.

So…what’s going on here? A classic example of the misattribution of physiological arousal.

High physiological arousal refers to internal, physical activation in the body which is marked by rapid breathing or a racing heart. Typically, we become aroused like this when we’re surprised, when we’re angry, or—as is relevant to today’s lesson—when we’re in the presence of an attractive other.

Take a moment and imagine your crush is suddenly approaching you. Naturally, your heart rate quickens; your hands begin to sweat; the muscles in your back go tight. But now ask yourself this: how different are these feelings from those elicited by a looming syringe prick?

As error-prone humans, we’re not always great at discerning what caused our arousal or if we’re even aroused in the first place. For example, after exercising, participants tend to report that their heart rate (i.e., arousal) has returned to baseline a full five minutes before cardiac monitors actually demonstrate this.

Thus, it can be easy to misattribute the cause of one’s physiological arousal (e.g., having one’s blood drawn) to an entirely different source, namely, a romantic interest.

For example, researchers had men come into the lab and run in place for either 15 seconds (low arousal) or 120 seconds (high arousal) while they watched a videotape of a female peer talk about random topics. And expectedly, those in the high arousal condition found the women on the screen to be more sexually attractive than those in the low arousal condition.

However, this was only true for the participants who misattributed that arousal.

When participants were made aware that their increased arousal was due to the exercise, those in the high arousal (vs. low arousal) condition no longer found the woman in the video more attractive. Only when the source of their arousal was disguised from them (and the men could misattribute that arousal to the woman) did it influence their reports of attraction.

Thus, research shows that whether your arousal was elicited from a movie (either a comedy or a horror), a roller coaster ride, or even crossing a shaky bridge, the subsequent arousal can easily be misattributed to the way another person makes you feel.

So, got any ideas for a good date now?

Love on the Brain? When it comes to a desire for arousal, we’re not all born equal. So what does a preference for high- or low-arousing activities say about you?


Recommended book:

“Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert B. Cialdini


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