The Misconception: You always know why you feel the way you feel.
The Truth: You can experience emotional states without knowing why, even if you believe you can pinpoint the source.
The bridge is still in British Columbia, still long and scary, still sagging across the Capilano Canyon daring people to traverse it.
If you were to place the Statue of Liberty underneath the bridge, base and all, it would lightly drape across her copper shoulders. It is about as wide as a park bench for its entire suspended length, and when you try to cross, feeling it sway and rock in the wind, hearing it creak and buckle, it is difficult to take your eyes off of the rocks and roaring water two-hundred and thirty feet below – far enough for you feel in your stomach the distance between you and a messy, crumpled death. Not everyone makes it across.
In 1974, psychologists Art Aron and Donald Dutton hired a woman to stand in the middle of this suspension bridge. As men passed her on their way across, she asked them if they would be willing to fill out a questionnaire. At the end of the questions, she asked them to examine an illustration of a lady covering her face and then make up a back story to explain it. She then told each man she would be more than happy to discuss the study further if he wanted to call her that night, and tore off a portion of the paper, wrote down her number, and handed it over.
The scientists knew the fear in the men’s bellies would be impossible to ignore, and they wanted to know how a brain soaking in anxiety juices would make sense of what just happened. To do this, they needed another bridge to serve as a control, one which wouldn’t produce terror, so they had their assistant go through the same routine on a wide, sturdy, wooden bridge standing fixed just a few feet off of the ground.
After running the experiment at both locations, they compared the results and found 50 percent of the men who got them digits on the dangerous suspension bridge picked up a phone and called looking for the lady of the canyon. Of the men questioned on the secure bridge, the percentage who came calling dropped to 12.5. That wasn’t the only significant difference. When they compared the stories the subjects made up about the illustration, they found the men on the scary bridge were almost twice as likely to come up with sexually suggestive narratives.
What was going on here? One bridge made men flirty and eager to follow up with female interviewers, and one did not. To make sense of it, you must understand something psychologists call arousal and how easy it is to falsely identify its source. Mistaken emotional origins can save relationships, create amorous mirages and lead you into behaviors and attitudes both sublime and hypocritical.
Arousal, in the psychological sense, is not limited to sexual situations. It can envelop you in a number of ways. You’ve felt it: increased heart rate, focused attention, sweaty palms, dry mouth, big breaths followed by bigger sighs. It is that wide-eyed, electricity in your veins feeling you get when the wind picks up and the rain begins to pour. It is a state of wakefulness, more alert and aware than normal, in which your mind is paying full attention to the moment. This isn’t the action-roll-out-of bed-feeling you get when a fire alarm snaps you out of a deep sleep. No, arousal is prolonged and total, it builds and saturates. Arousal comes from deep inside the brain, in those primal regions of the autonomic nervous system where ingoing and outgoing signals are monitored and the glass over the big fight-or-flight button waits to be smashed. You feel it as a soldier waiting to see if the next mortar has your name on it, as a musician walking on stage inside a sold-out stadium, as a crowd member elevated by a powerful speech, in a group circling a fire and singing and drumming, as a member of a congregation swimming in the Gospel and swaying with hands raised, in a couple at the center of a packed dance floor. Your eyes water with ease. You want to weep and laugh simultaneously. You could just explode.
The men on the bridge experienced this heightened state of clarity, fear, anxiety and dread, and when they met an attractive woman those feelings continued to flow into their hearts and heads, but the source got scrambled. Was it the bridge or the lady? Was she being nice, or was she interested? Why did she pick me? My heart is pounding – is she making me feel this way? When Aron and Dutton ran the bridge experiment with a male interviewer (and male subjects), the lopsided results disappeared. The men no longer considered the interviewer as a possible cause, or if they did they suppressed it. The misattribution of arousal also went away when they ran the experiment on a safe bridge. No heightened state, no need to explain it. On a hunch, Aron and Dutton decided to move the experiment away from the real world with all its uncontrollable variables and attack the puzzle from another direction in the lab.
In the lab experiment male college students entered a room full of scientific-looking electrical equipment where a researcher greeted them asking if they had seen another student wandering around. When the men said they hadn’t, the scientists pretended to go looking for the other subject and left behind reading material for the men to look over concerning learning and painful electric shocks. When the scientists felt like enough time had passed, they brought in an actress who pretended to be another student who had also volunteered for the study. The men, one at a time, would then sit beside the woman and listen as the scientists explained the subjects would soon be shocked with either a terrible, bowel-loosening megablast or a “mere tingle.” After all of this, the psychologists flipped a coin to determine who would be getting what. They weren’t actually going to shock anyone, they just wanted to scare the bejeezus out of the men. The researchers then handed over a questionnaire similar to the one from the bridge experiment, complete with the illustration interpretation portion, and told the men to work on it while they prepared the electrocution machines.
The questionnaire asked the men to rate their anxiety and their attraction to the other subject. As the scientists suspected, the results matched the bridge. The men who expected a terrible, painful future rated their anxiety and their attraction to the ladies as significantly higher than those expecting mild tingles. When it came to those narratives explaining the pictures, once again the more anxious the men, the more sexual imagery they produced.
Aron and Dutton showed when you feel aroused, you naturally look for context, an explanation as to why you feel so alive. This search for meaning happens automatically and unconsciously, and whatever answer you come up with is rarely questioned because you don’t realize you are asking. Like the men on the bridge, you sometimes make up a reason for why you feel the way you do, and then you believe your own narrative and move on. It is easy to pinpoint the source of your contorted face and toothy grin if you took peyote at Burning Man and are twirling glow sticks to the beat of a pulsating lizard-faced bassoon quartet. The source of your coursing blood is more ambiguous if you just drank a Red Bull before heading into a darkened theater to watch an action movie. You can’t know for sure it if it is the explosions or the caffeinated taurine water, but damn if this movie doesn’t rock. In many situations you either can’t know or fail to notice what got you physiologically amped, and you mistakenly attribute the source to something in your immediate environment. People, it seems, are your favorite explanations as studies show you prefer to see other human beings as the source of your heightened state of arousal when given the option. The men expecting to get electrocuted misattributed a portion of their pulse’s pace to the ladies by their sides. Aron and Dutton focused on fear and anxiety, but in the years since, research has revealed just about any emotional state can be misattributed, and this has led to important findings on how to keep a marriage together.
In 2008, psychologist James Graham at the University of North Carolina conducted a study to see what sort of activities kept partners bonded. He had 20 couples who lived together carry around digital devices while conducting their normal daily activities. Whenever the device went off, they had to use it to text back to the researchers and tell them what they were up to. They then answered a few questions about their mood and how they felt toward their partners. After over a thousand of these buzz-report-introspect-text moments, he looked over the data and found couples who routinely performed difficult tasks together as partners were also more likely to like each other. Over the course of his experiments, he found partners tended to feel closer, more attracted to and more in love with each other when their skills were routinely challenged. He reasoned the buzz you get when you break through a frustrating trial and succeed, what Graham called flow, was directly tied to bonding. Just spending time together is not enough, he said. The sort of activities you engage in are vital. Graham concluded you are driven to grow, to expand, to add to your abilities and knowledge. When you satisfy this motivation for self-expansion by incorporating aspects of your romantic partner or friend into your own skills, philosophies and self, it does more to strengthen your bond than any other act of love. This opens the door to one of the best things about misattribution of emotion. If, like those in the study, you persevere through a challenge – be it remodeling a kitchen yourself or learning how to Dougie – that glowing feeling of becoming more wise, that buoyant sense of self-expansion will be partially misattributed to the presence of the other person. You become conditioned over time to see the relationship itself as a source for those sorts of emotions, and you will become less likely to want to sever your bond with the other party. In the beginning, just learning how to relate to the other person and interpret their non-verbal cues, emotional swings and strange food aversions is an exercise in self-expansion. The frequency of novelty can diminish as the relationship ages and you settle into routines. The bond can seem to weaken. To build it up again you need adversity, even if simulated. Taking ballroom dancing lessons or teaming up against friends in Trivial Pursuit are more likely to keep the flame flickering than wine and Marvin Gaye.
I think falling in love occurs under the right circumstances and it is not a rational process, but it’s a predictable process.
- Psychologist Art Aron
The arousal you are prone to misattributing can also come from within, especially if you find yourself on questionable moral ground. Mark Zanna and Joel Cooper in 1978 gave placebo pills to a group of subjects. They told half of the pill takers the drug would make them feel relaxed, and they told the other half it would make them feel tense. They then asked the subjects to write an essay explaining why free speech should be banned. Most people were reluctant and felt terrible about expressing an opinion counter to their true beliefs. When the researchers gave all the participants a chance to go back and change their papers, the ones who thought they had taken a downer were far more likely to take them up on the offer. The ones who thought they took a speedy pill assumed the heat under their collars was from the drug instead of their own cognitive dissonance, so they didn’t feel the need to change their positions. The other group had no scapegoat for their emotional states, so they wanted to rewrite the paper because they suspected it would ease their minds and bring their arousal back down to normal. Cognitive dissonance, behaving in a way which seems to run counter to your beliefs, cranks up arousal in a way that feels awful. The subjects in the Zanna and Cooper experiment wanted to alleviate this, but only those who thought they took the downer could pinpoint the source of their mental discomfort. For the other group, the fake upper served as a red herring throwing them off the trail back to their own negative emotions.
Misattribution of arousal falls under the self-perception theory. This theory goes back as far as William James, one of the founders of psychology. It posits your attitudes are shaped by observing your own behavior and trying to make sense of it. For instance, James would say if you saw a cricket on your arm and then flailed about rubbing your body up and down while screaming incoherently, you would later assume you had experienced fear and might then believe you were afraid of crickets. Self-perception theory says you look back on a situation like this as if in an audience trying to understand your own motivations. Sometimes, you jump to conclusions without all the facts. As with many theories, there is much research left to be done and plenty of debate, but in many ways James was right. You often do act as observer of your actions, a witness to your thoughts, and you form beliefs about your self based on those observations. Psychologist Fritz Strack devised a simple experiment in 1988 in which he had subjects hold a pen straight out between their incisors and bare their teeth as they read cartoon strips. The subjects tended to find the cartoons funnier than when they held the pen between their lips instead. Between the teeth, some of the muscles used for smiling were contracted, and between the lips they contracted some of the muscles used for frowning. He concluded the subjects felt themselves smiling and decided somewhere deep in their minds they must be enjoying the comics. When they felt themselves frowning, they assumed they thought the comics were dull. In a similar experiment in 1980 by Gary Wells and Richard Petty at the University of Alberta subjects were asked to test out headphones by either nodding or shaking their heads while listening to a pundit delivering an editorial. Sure enough, when questioned later the nodders tended to agree with the opinion of the speaker more than the shakers. In 2003, Jens Förster at International University Bremen asked volunteers to rate food items as they moved across a large screen. Sometimes the food names moved up and down, and sometimes side to side, thus producing unconscious nodding or head shaking. As in the pundit study, people tended to say they preferred the foods which made them nod unless they were gross. In Förster’s and other similar studies, positive and negative opinions became stronger, but if a person hated broccoli, for example, no amount of head nodding would change their mind.
Arousal can fill up the spaces in your brain when you least expect it. It could be a rousing movie trailer or a plea for mercy from a distant person reaching out over YouTube. Like a coterie of prairie dogs standing alert as if living periscopes, your ancestors were built to pay attention when it mattered, but with cognition comes pattern recognition and all the silly ways you misinterpret your inputs. The source of your emotional states is often difficult or impossible to detect. The time to pay attention can pass, or the details become lodged in a place underneath consciousness. In those instances you feel, but you know not why. When you find yourself in this situation you tend to lock onto a target, especially if there is another person who fits with the narrative you are about to spin. It feels good to assume you’ve discovered what is causing you to feel happy, to feel rejected, to feel angry or lovesick. It helps you move forward. Why question it?
The research into arousal says you are bad at explaining yourself to yourself, but it sheds light on why so many successful dates include roller-coasters, horror films and conversations over coffee. If you want to get things rolling with a romantic interest you would be better served by bungee jumping or scuba diving, ice skating or rock climbing than candlelit dinners. No doubt, trapeze artists must have complicated and compelling love lives.
There is a reason playful wrestling can lead to passionate kissing, why a great friend can turn a heaving cry into a belly laugh. There is a reason why great struggle brings you closer to friends, family and lovers. There is a reason why Rice Krispies commercials show moms teaching children how to make treats in crisp black-and-white while Israel Kamakawiwo’ole sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow. When you want to know why you feel the way you do but are denied the correct answer, you don’t stop searching. You settle on something – the person beside you, the product in front of you, the drug in your brain. You don’t always know the right answer, but when you are flirting over a latte don’t point it out.
If you buy one book this year…well, I suppose you should get something you’ve had your eye on for a while. But, if you buy two or more books this year, might I recommend one of them be a celebration of self delusion? Give the gift of humility (to yourself or someone else you love). Watch the trailer.