Some time ago, on a trip to Sri Lanka, I visited a newly renovated church on the outskirts of the capital, Colombo. Five years earlier, on Pentecost, the minister had held a service for some of the younger members of the parish, the plan being for the power of the Holy Spirit to descend upon their lives as it had upon the lives of Jesus' disciples after the resurrection. To say it hadn't gone smoothly would be doing a profound injustice to all rational interpretations of the word understatement. An accident with some candles, and a psychopathic incense burner, had seen the Pentecostal fire go up rather than down, with the resulting conflagration sapping half a million rupees from the church restoration fund.
Yet the Good Lord works in mysterious ways, all right. And a miracle, of sorts, did occur that day. Over 20% of the 18-25 year olds who were present at the service ended up getting hitched.
A significantly higher hit rate than would otherwise have been expected.
If you've discounted divine intervention, and are trying to figure out what chimeral sleight of mind might lie behind this conundrum, let me give you a hint. It's for precisely the same reason that a disproportionate number of cops and nurses hit it off. Think about where cops and nurses are most likely to run into each other. You got it: ER departments. And what are ER departments usually like? Exactly: tense, unpredictable, dramatic.
There's something about danger that quite simply scares us sexy.
The experiment conducted by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron back in 1974 has been wheeled out more times than a trash can in Little Italy. But do you think that's going to stop me putting it out there once again? Of course not. The experiment was set on the in Vancouver, British Columbia. As participants crossed the bridge - 450-foot-long, 200-foot-high, 6-foot-wide and swinging (that's the bridge, by the way, not the participants) - they were suddenly approached by an attractive female researcher who issued them with an assignment: they were to compose a ‘brief, dramatic' story based on the image of ‘a young woman covering her face with one hand and reaching with the other.' A second group of participants (all men by the way, aged between 18 and 35) were handed the same assignment by the same researcher but on another, more conventional bridge. One, for instance, that didn't move when you crossed it.
The data, it turned out, certainly raised a few eyebrows. In more ways than one. For a start, content analysis of the stories revealed that those composed by participants in the ‘high fear' condition (the swinging bridge) contained a greater prevalence of sexual imagery than those composed by the ‘low fear' participants. But that wasn't all. While the female researcher had given out her telephone number to participants on both bridges - as part of the study - it was those whom she'd approached on the swinging bridge that had been more likely to call.
The participants at Capilano Canyon were quite literally on a high.
Dutton and Aron's study is one of the more famous demonstrations of a phenomenon known as misattribution of arousal. Or, if you prefer, excitation transfer. The increased level of physiological stimulation precipitated by the movement of the bridge is subsequently misattributed, in the presence of someone cute, as being caused by sexual attraction. Same as with the cops and nurses in ER. Same as with the young folk in the church.
Moral of the story? Often, rather than looking at the cold, hard facts of a particular situation, it is, in contrast, to our feelings that we turn for information. And sometimes our feelings can sell us down the river.
Now, if you're wondering what Pentecostal fires in Sri Lanka and swinging suspension bridges in Vancouver have got to do with anything you may wish to reflect on what you might be doing tonight. Today is Valentine's Day, and if you've got a date there's a pretty good chance you'll be heading off to the movies. But what are you going to see? Research suggests that it might be quite important.
A 2009 study applied the principles of evolutionary psychology to on-screen advertising. The study focused on the context in which adverts appear. Are some movies better than others at selling products? Or does genre have little impact? The answer, it seems, is that it very much depends on the ad. Scary movies, it turns out, work better for ads that rely on ‘social proof' appeals (e.g. "best selling brand; "choice of millions" etc), whereas romantic movies rock if you're hitting on the principle of ‘scarcity' (e.g. "limited edition"; "while stocks last".)
Now at first, I admit, this isn't exactly obvious. A movie's a movie, right? But delve a little deeper, into the vast, penumbral archives of our evolutionary history, and enlightenment begins to dawn. When a pack animal is threatened by a predator, its response is quick and instinctive: it herds closer to the group. As individual salience decreases, chances of survival increase. But this is also true in humans. Consistent with our group-based heritage, it's been found, for instance, that when users of an Internet chat room are made to feel under threat, they begin to ‘stick together'. Their views display convergence, and they become more likely to conform to the attitudes and opinions of others in the forum.
Conversely, however, when it comes to attracting mates, a core evolutionary strategy is salient positive differentiation. In the animal kingdom, when members of a species are approached by the opposite sex, they often engage in conspicuous displays and rituals designed not just to attract the attention of potential suitors, but also, in the process, to positively differentiate themselves from same-sex rivals.
Sound familiar? It should do. As anyone who's walked through Cambridge city centre on a Friday night will testify, romantic desire in humans has precisely the same effect.
So ads that play on our need for differentiation ("Stand out from the crowd!") will fare better in the middle of Love Actually, say, than Saw. And ads that appeal to our herd instincts will bite harder in Nightmare on Elm Street than in Ghost.
All of which means that if you're planning on hitting the Cineplex tonight, or sticking on a DVD, you might want to think about what you're going to see. Sure, Titanic may be one of the world's most romantic movies. But has it got what it takes to get you in the mood for love? That sinking feeling's starting already.
Plus, there's another problem. Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio - not exactly the ugliest pair of bozos in the world. And research has shown that movies with reel-to-reel hotties tend to spark off negative comparisons. On average, dates are rated as less attractive after films packing eye candy than they are after films with a more average-looking cast list. So now you know.
Silence of the Lambs, on the other hand - now, that's a far better proposition! Not only do scary movies knit us closer together, they also set our pulses racing. And in the heat of the moment, as the church and the bridge people discovered, it's easy to misread the signs.