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Can Being Scared Make Someone Appear More Attractive?

Bridges and attraction

Source: Martin Graff

The answer to this question has long since known to be ‘yes’ that being scared can make someone more attractive. This was demonstrated in a classic study by Dutton & Aron (1974), where the researchers set up an experiment which had a female confederate stand at the end of either a bridge which appeared to look safe, or a scary looking bridge in Capilano, Vancouver. The safe bridge was a solid structure and crossed a stream just a few feet below. The scary bridge was a suspension bridge and ran across a deep ravine hundreds of feet above the floor. Males who crossed each bridge were approached by the female confederate, who asked the males to complete a survey. The females also gave the males their name and phone number and were told they could use this if they had any follow up questions regarding the survey. The researchers were actually using the number of follow up calls made by the men as an indication of how attractive they judged the females to be. The implication was that the more phone calls made, the more attractive the men found the female to be. As you may have guessed, the men who used the scary bridge made more phone calls to the female than those who walked across the safe bridge.

A similar finding was observed by Meston & Frohlich, (2003). In this study, both males and females who were either waiting to get on or get off a roller-coaster were approached by researchers and asked to rate the attractiveness of an opposite sex individual who had been previously independently rated as being of average attractiveness. For both males and females who were on the roller-coaster who did not have a non romantic partner, attractiveness ratings of the photograph were higher for those who had just been on the roller-coaster, than for those queueing for the ride. This effect was only found for those without a romantic partner.


The reason for this effect is explained by what in psychology has been called misattribution of arousal. The misattribution is caused by excitation transfer (Cantor, Zillman & Bryant, 1975), which occurs if arousal from one stimuli is transferred to or misattributed to another. Put simply this means that we make a mistake in judging what is causing us to be aroused. In the case of the studies carried out on the Capilano Bridge and roller coaster described above, the arousal experienced in relation to fear was misattributed as romantic arousal. The likelihood is that the misattribution occurs because we experience similar physiological symptoms (e.g. increased heart rate, shortness of breathe) in each case. However, it is unlikely that frightening people to make yourself appear more attractive won’t work!

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  • Cantor, J. R., Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1975) ‘Enhancement of experienced sexual arousal in response to erotic stimuli through misattribution of unrelated residual excitation’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(1), 69-75.
  • 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.
  • Meston, C. M. & Frohlich, P. F.,(2003) ‘Love at First Fright: Partner Salience Moderates Roller-Coaster-Induced Excitation Transfer’ Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 32(6), 537-544.
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