“Imagine being in the jungle, thousands of miles from civilization…”

Thus opened the promo two years ago for Love In The Wild, the “extreme dating experiment” on NBC that sent its contestants on first dates that were jam packed with shaky bridges, crocodile attacks, and bungee jumping.

Either NBC replaced their writing staff with former academics, or their writers missed a true calling as social psychologists. This trick has been done before — and, in case you were wondering, it works.

People typically assume that we process emotional experiences in a fairly straightforward way: First comes the target, and then comes the emotion related to it. Something makes you mad, so then you feel mad. Something makes you happy, so then you feel happy.

But our bodies aren’t quite so logical. Most of the time what we feel is not really “anger” or “happiness” but simply arousal, a word that tends to take on a sexual connotation yet really just means an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and sensory alertness. When there’s an obvious reason why our bodies have responded this way (e.g. a fight), it’s easy to attribute this arousal to a distinct emotion (e.g. anger). What about when the source isn’t quite so clear?

Take this example: You’re walking across a shaky suspension bridge, 200 feet above rocks and shallow rapids. The bridge tilts and wobbles as you cross, making you feel like you could fall over the side with every step. Your palms sweat, and your heart is beating so fast you can feel it in your mouth. To what do you attribute this arousal? Fear, correct?

Not necessarily. This is exactly where researchers Dutton and Aron situated a group of men, except they added in one crucial thing: After stepping off the bridge (which was either the shaky one described above or a different, stable bridge), each participant was approached by a woman who offered him her name and phone number. The men in the “scary bridge” condition were significantly more likely to accept the phone number, call the woman, and ask her out on a date. After experiencing the fear-induced arousal from the bridge, the men all “misattributed” this arousal as sexual attraction when they saw the woman immediately afterward; when asked why they called her, the men often indicated that they were aroused by her, but never thought to mention anything about the fact that they had just stepped off of a terrifying bridge. They didn’t realize that the arousal they were experiencing actually had very little to do with the woman herself.

This happens more often than we realize. People will sometimes experience ambiguous arousal first, and then search the environment around them to find possible targets that they can label as an explanation second. If you’re amped up on a drug designed to raise your general level of body arousal (like epinephrine) but you don’t realize that the drug is the arousal’s cause, you can end up inferring the cause based on the emotions you witness in those around you. If you see a euphoric person, you will mislabel your arousal as “euphoria” and feel really, manically happy; if you see an angry person, you will misidentify the same arousal as “anger” and feel angry. In the case of the shaky bridge, the participants accidentally attributed (at least some of) their fear-based arousal to sexual attraction.

What does this mean for past Love In The Wild contestants? If social psychology has anything to say, the contestants may have been surprised by how quickly they ended up falling hard and fast for their bungee-jumping, crocodile-fighting, shaky-bridge-walking teammates, without realizing that their love in the wild was really love coming from the wild. And as for tonight, if you haven't made your V-Day plans yet, I have a few recommendations for you. Might I suggest going to see a scary movie or going for an evening run? Science says you won't regret it.

Dutton, D.G., & Aron, A.P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J.E. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379-399.

Image of shaky bridge by Nicholas A. Tonelli, available via Flickr.

Image of South American tropic jungle by Ramenz, available via Wikipedia

This was originally posted at my old PsySociety blog in June 2011. You can see the original post by clicking the From The Archives icon on the right.