“You watch The Bachelorette?”
I can hear the incredulity dripping from his voice. I shrug. Hesitate. And then I nod.
“Wow, I never would have guessed.”
“Why?” I say.
“You just don’t seem like the typical Bachelor fan,” he explains.
“I know,” I say. To be fair to him, there’s an awful lot of the franchise fandom that really violates my core values. I’m not someone who generally worships influencers, sportsballers, or pageant contestants. Nor am I trying to be one of them. “I watch it to see how the producers hack psychology to get them to fall in love.”
“Huh,” my friend says. “Yeah, that does sound like you. Have any examples?”
“Well, sure,” I say. “For starters, there’s something called the misattribution of arousal that comes into play rather heavily on their dates.”
What Is the Misattribution of Arousal?
The misattribution of arousal is a term for a phenomenon that was first noted in classic psychological studies whereby participants would feel stimulation by one cause and wrongly attribute it to something else.
The most clearcut way this interfaces with reality TV dating shows is when people feel fear and mislabel that physiological response (blood pressure elevation, shortness of breath, etc.) as signaling romantic attraction.
In a classic study in 1974, Dutton and Aron had a woman stand on a bridge that was either sturdy or rickety. While on this bridge, the male participants were given a thematic apperception test in which they had to come up with a short story to describe ambiguous images they were presented. Notably, these images were not sexual in nature. After the study, the woman gave her phone number and told them participants could contact her if they had additional questions.
The ones on the rickety bridge called the woman at a much greater rate, consistent with the idea that anxiety from the bridge’s shaking had led the participants to find her more sexually attractive.
Okay, that’s kind of weird, right? Probably a fluke. Must be a fluke.
No actually. A large body of followup evidence accumulated over the years, finding similar and drilling down into various factors and ways that the phenomenon manifests.
The Producers Literally Have People Who Are Afraid of Heights Climb Tall Buildings on Dates
This phenomenon is rather tidily exploited by reality TV producers. I mean. C’mon. They literally have people who are afraid of heights climb tall buildings on dates.
Once you’re aware of this phenomenon, you’ll see it being applied constantly when watching shows like The Bachelor or Bachelorette.
Anyway… it also makes me think of other implications. For example, how easy it could be to trauma bond with someone… fear and anxiety can be interpreted in strange ways — and can make someone close to us when it’s happening seem more attractive.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.