Since several of you relayed that you enjoyed my most recent post, I’ve decided to submit one additional brief excerpt from the first chapter of my book. To set the scene, for those of you who did not read my last post, in the first chapter of my recently published book, Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, I invented an imaginary panel of unethical Psychological consultants who advise the producers of ABC's The Bachelor on how to manipulate people into false feelings of love.
My goal in deconstructing elements of The Bachelor is to illustrate the powerful pull of factors we often overlook during the initial “cocaine rush phase” of falling in love. There is much more in the first chapter of my book, but, for your entertainment and possibly edification, here is some additional commentary on the show. Let’s drop back down then into the twisted, oily little minds of my imaginary panel of Psychological consultants…
...The hired consultants would urge the producers to temporarily imbue their created hero with all sorts of superpowers—the power to afford dates at the most glamorous locations, the power to shut down the Hollywood Bowl for a private concert, the power to summon the best musicians to remote locations to stimulate some intimate dancing, access to all manner of superior transport, whether this be private jets, helicopters, or the perfect pair of elephants for traveling through a lush rain forest.
The bachelor will transport various women on a globe-trotting journey through a number of exotic locales to give their respective love stories the luster of an epic romance. All the while, it will never occur to the contestants that they are really dating ABC, who is the provider of the lifestyle with which they are falling in love. As one male contestant remarked in the May 30, 2011, Bachelorette episode, “I feel like a million bucks….My heart is soaring higher than the fountains [in the Bellagio Hotel]…this is the kind of date that you marry this person” (sic). This is what psychologists would call “displacement.”
In a miasma of such fantasy, rarely will a typical contestant say “you know, he is not really my type” or “I'm actually not that attracted to him.” Sure, the producers edit what is on screen, and certainly, contestants have fame-seeking motives as well as love-connection ones, but if people were feeling this type of thing, they would probably leave the show more often than they do or would signal in some other way their relative disinterest, perhaps by occasionally making themselves slightly less physically available to the bachelor's romantic overtures. Think about it—how many times has a contestant on the show turned her face away at the approach of a bachelor’s wet mouth, even in cases when she has seen him making out with someone else not 30 seconds previously?
To really manipulate the bonding process, the hired experts would orchestrate exposures to some of the women's existing fears (which the experts would intentionally assess during the casting interviews), whether this involves deep sea diving, race car driving, or helicopter travel. The woman of the day would then be faced with intense pressure to conform to the expectations of the bachelor (and of the TV-viewing audience) to confront a fear that she otherwise would have avoided by any means possible.
By engaging in this fear-confronting behavior with the “steady” presence and frequently voiced reassurances of the strapping stud by her side, each woman will confuse the feeling of triumph after confronting a long-held fear with something that begins to feel like love. This same principle of bonding is what requires strong ethical principles in the practice of providing psychotherapy. Specifically, a strong bond is formed when one walks through a valley of fear with another, so an ethical therapist must be aware of this and maintain professional behavior to avoid taking advantage of a patient's vulnerability.
Conveniently, the bachelor is not a professional and is not held to these inconvenient ethical standards, so he will be able to move right into the hearts of these women after their fear experiences have been manufactured and “jointly” overcome. In the context of such hair-raising scenarios like swimming with sharks or rappelling off the side of a skyscraper with a handsome man constantly assuring them that they are safe with him, the women are likely to mistake temporary physical safety for emotional safety, which is a vastly different concept. As a result, after conquering a fear, the contestants will predictably begin to share a number of highly personal experiences with the bachelor (and 10 million anonymous viewers).
Furthermore, these ethically impaired experts would also know that misattributions of love will bloom in a context of general arousal paired with the presence of an attractive suitor. Thanks to a group of researchers from the University of Texas, Austin*, we now know that when you put people on a roller coaster and then ask them to rate the attractiveness of members of the opposite sex, they will rate them as more attractive than if you had asked them to do so after knitting a scarf.
This finding has been repeated in other hair-raising scenarios such as on high, swinging bridges. Researchers call this “excitation transfer theory.” It basically means that when you get aroused by anything, whether it be bungee jumping, roller coastering, or even jogging on a treadmill, your heart rate goes up, and, in the presence of an attractive person, you are likely to misattribute your general level of excitement to excitement caused by the attractive person’s presence. This is why the helicopter would be such a common form of transport for the show—it would ensure that each female contestant experiences a shot of adrenaline while feeling “carried away by” a man who is smashed against her side in the womb-like berth of the flying craft.
In fact, excitation transfer theory goes a long way to explain the theme we might label as “love collisions of former rivals” throughout big-screen history. For example, picture Princess Leia and Han Solo snapping at each other one minute and then suddenly embracing each other passionately the next. The seeming paradox between the states of fighting viciously one moment and clasping each other in an amorous embrace a moment later may be partly explained by the triggering of adrenaline and increased heart rate paired with the presence of an attractive person—in other words, excitation transfer theory…
* Meston, C.M. and Frohlich, P.F. (2003). “Love at First Fright: Partner Salience Moderates Roller-Coaster-Induced Excitation Transfer.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 32: 537-544