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Using Arousal and Excitement to Persuade and Influence

How the "misattribution of arousal" impacts behavior and decision-making.

Key points

  • Excitement from a situation or activity can get linked to other people, behaviors, and attitudes. It is called the "misattribution of arousal."
  • Arousal magnifies feelings and makes an idea, behavior, or partner seem more appealing.
  • An aroused person is more open to persuasion.

It is well known that an exciting dating activity, or even a stimulating cup of coffee, can arouse passion between romantic partners. The flutter of excitement created by the activity or beverage is linked to feelings about the romantic partner instead.

This is known as the "misattribution of arousal" in the relationship literature. Beyond romantic passion, however, feelings of arousal and excitement also profoundly influence persuasion, decision-making, and emotion in general. So, if you want to persuade at work or home, you must learn how to use excitement to your benefit.

Research on Arousal and Decision-Making

An excellent example of the effects of arousal and excitement on decision-making is provided by the work of Vosgerau (2010). The researcher was interested in examining how arousal might influence people's beliefs about the likelihood of events occurring, as well as how optimistic or pessimistic they were in their thoughts.

So, Vosgerau (2010) made participants excited by handing them questionnaires on bright pink paper, playing a dice gambling game, or anticipating watching a live professional soccer game. Then, participants were asked a series of questions to test their judgment and bias.

Across four experiments, the author found that arousal influenced people's perceptions of probability. In other words, the more excited they were, the more likely they were to believe that future events had a high probability of occurring. Also, if they were encouraged to focus on positive and desirable events, they became more optimistic when aroused, too. In contrast, if they were encouraged to focus on undesirable events, they became more pessimistic when aroused instead. Put simply, getting participants excited made them more biased in their judgments.

Arousal and excitement have been demonstrated to influence several other processes as well. When individuals are excited or stimulated, it is often easier to persuade them and change their attitudes on a topic (Giesen & Hendrick, 1974; Mintz & Mills, 1971). Nevertheless, arousal can also lead to greater empathy, altruism, and helping behavior (Coke et al., 1978) and reduce the tendency to cheat (Dienstbier & Hunter, 1971). Finally, such excitation and arousal generally increase the likelihood that people will change their behaviors, attitudes, and self-image when in conflict or challenged (Kiesler & Pallak, 1976).

Why Arousal Works

Taken as a whole, feelings of arousal and excitement offer important information to an individual. They signal when to be motivated and act. They excite and energize feelings, decisions, and behaviors too. Essentially, arousal creates a general Response Facilitation Effect (Allen et al., 1989).

Therefore, the impact is magnified when a person, thought, or behavior is linked to such arousal. Being excited will amplify whatever they are feeling or thinking. For example, if they are happy, arousal will make them feel elated. If they are angry, arousal will make them furious. Thus, the emotional excitement an individual feels and the attributions they make about it are essential to monitoring for effective influence.

There is a drawback, though. Such arousal and excitement also get people "carried away" with themselves, reducing their ability and motivation for deeper critical thinking. So, it opens them up for peripheral and surface-level persuasion but can reduce the likelihood of more meaningful and thoughtful education or negotiation. In essence, excitement is more about a quick sale or small nudge than a long-term change of attitude or personality.

Persuading With Arousal

Nevertheless, if you have a quick or superficial persuasive effort that needs a boost, then adding a bit of arousal can help. To start, however, it is important to first get the individual you are persuading emotionally excited. This can take many forms:

  • Doing something athletic that gets the heart racing (e.g., dancing, jogging).
  • Partaking in an exciting or scary activity (e.g., roller coasters, bungee jumping, carnival rides).
  • Watching a thrilling or emotional movie, play, or television show.
  • Trying something novel or new (e.g., eating new food, going on an adventure to a new place).
  • Getting involved in some sort of competition or challenge.
  • Drinking caffeine.
  • Being humorous, surprising, or clever.
  • Getting into an exciting mindset or anticipating something in the future.

From there, it is about linking those excited feelings with whatever you want them to do or think. Again, the best links here will be to persuasive appeals that do not require much critical thinking. So, you could simply talk with them about a social norm that supports your point of view. Or, share how a particular attitude or behavior is already consistent with their past decisions. Then again, you could just reward the behavior you want instead. In any case, the excitement and arousal they feel will magnify the effect. As a bonus, if they link the good feelings to you personally, they might also come to like you more in the process!

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Allen, J. B., Kenrick, D. T., Linder, D. E., & McCall, M A. (1989). Arousal and attraction: A response-facilitation alternative to misattribution and negative-reinforcement models. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 261-270.

Coke, J. S., Batson, C. D., McDavis, K. (1978). Empathic mediation of helping: A two-stage model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 752-766.

Dienstbier, R. A., & Hunter, P. O. (1971). Cheating as a function of labeling of natural arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17, 208-213.

Giesen, M., & Hendrick, C. (1974). Effects of false positive and negative arousal feedback on persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 449-457.

Kiesler, C. A., & Pallack, M. S. (1976). Arousal properties of dissonance manipulations. Psychological Bulletin, 83, 1014-1025.

Mintz, P. M., & Mills, J. (1971). Effects of arousal and information about its source upon attitude change. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 561-570.

Vosgerau, J. (2010). How prevalent is wishful thinking? Misattribution of arousal causes optimism and pessimism in subjective probabilities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 32-48.