A Psychologist at the Movies

Imaginary people have problems, too.

Love in The Hunger Games

Why Katniss falls for Peeta: sometimes scary situations lead to love

I’m completely obsessed with The Hunger Games. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I have visited North Korea, a real country where millions of people really are dying of hunger. Maybe it’s the ironic meta-experience of watching the violence on a huge screen, when the point of the movie is that people shouldn’t be watching violence on a huge screen. Regardless, The Hunger Games is chock full of possible psychological analysis. Today I’m choosing to focus on the fascinatingly weird emotions that spark between the two main protagonists, Peeta and Katniss.

At home, Katniss basically has another boyfriend, a young man named Gale. He has rugged good looks, he’s brave, and they are perfectly matched in many ways. Both Katniss and Gale fight against the system in their own way (which is increasingly seen as the trilogy continues), and he is always successful at making Katniss feel comforted in a world with no comforts.

So why does Katniss fall for Peeta instead? Sure, in the first movie she is ambivalent about her feelings for Peeta, the kind-hearted boy with the looks of a sexy baby. Peeta certainly has lovable qualities—he’s smart, nurturing, and can frost a cake like nobody’s business—but he and Katniss are not exactly a natural pair. Their personalities clash, their goals in life are different, and Katniss really isn’t interested in any kind of frivolous romance. But psychology would have predicted their blossoming feelings for each other due to their experiences together in the Hunger Games. It’s all because of a phenomenon called Misattribution of Arousal.

In a classic social psychology study done in 1974 by researchers Dutton and Aron, a female experimenter waited around next to two bridges. One of the bridges was low and sturdy—very safe. The other bridge was “shaky” and high—you know, like one of those bridges in Indiana Jones, where you’re constantly afraid that the wooden boards and ropes will break and you’ll fall to your death. Or that some jerk kid will start jumping up and down while you’re trying to cross. Whenever a man would cross one of these bridges, the woman would pretend to be interested in their answers to a series of questions. But really, the study was all about whether the men would be physically attracted to the woman, which they measured by recording how many of them called the woman later.

You can probably predict what happened in this study: More men called the woman from the group that had crossed the shaky, scary bridge. Why did that happen? The woman was the same in both conditions. The answer, according to Dutton and Aron (and tons of later researchers who have tested this phenomenon in other ways), is the Misattribution of Arousal. When you’re in an environment which causes you to be physiologically aroused, your body goes crazy: your heart beat increases, your blood pressure goes up, and you start sweating.

Now, think about what happens to your body when you’re talking to a very attractive, sexy person. Your heart beat increases, your blood pressure goes up, and you start sweating. So Dutton and Aron argue that because we experience these physiological symptoms of arousal in several different settings, sometimes our cognitive interpretation of the symptoms can be incorrect. You might be scared or anxious, and mistakenly interpret the signs as being attracted to someone who happens to be around. For the men on the shaky bridge, they thought they were attracted to the female experimenter; this happened significantly more times than the men on the safe bridge who were looking at the exact same woman.

So, back to the main point: The Hunger Games. Peeta and Katniss are certainly in a scary environment. They’re surrounded by twenty-two other teenagers who are literally trying to kill them as soon as possible. They are both wounded; they could die at any moment. Adrenaline is pumping through them. According to Misattribution of Arousal (which is sometimes called Excitation Transfer), this physiological arousal will be transferred into sexual arousal. Peeta and Katniss will fall in love.

Because I’ve read the books, I can tell you that we’ll see this pattern come back in the second movie as well (although I don’t want to give too much away, as I hate spoilers). Katniss is constantly around Peeta in times of physical stress. The Hunger Games is like a shaky bridge, made a zillion times worse. She almost couldn’t help becoming attracted to him, even if she wouldn’t have been under other circumstances. Again, there are lots of reasons for Katniss to love Peeta; the misattribution of arousal is just one possibility, or maybe a catalyst.

I’m excited to see the next movie. My advice to readers, of course, is that if you’re going on a date and you want your date to like you, there’s always psychological manipulation in your romantic toolkit. Take your date to a scary environment, like a horror movie, haunted house, or a roller coaster. These environments will get your date’s body racing, and he or she might suddenly become more attracted to you! Those are probably better options than hiring a couple dozen teenagers to try to murder your date. ‘Cause I feel like that could go wrong in a lot of different ways.

 

Copyright Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D.

Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D. is a social psychologist at Buena Vista University, with research expertise on stereotypes and on romantic relationships. more...

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