Is This Love Or Too Much Caffeine? Misattributions of Arousal Strengthen Relationships

Is This Love or Too Much Caffeine? Misattributions of Arousal

Posted Apr 17, 2010

I'm in love. I can tell because my heart rate soars and I feel great when I'm near her. Of course, a lot of things can send my heart to palpitating, so how do I know it's love?

In various studies, researchers have played with people's hearts by manipulating arousal. For example, Dutton and Aron had an attractive woman interview men on either a very high, swaying footbridge or on a low, stable bridge. The high bridge was a 450 foot long wire cable and wood suspension bridge that swayed. The bridge was clearly anxiety provoking. In observations, Dutton and Aron found that men walked more slowly, held the handrail more frequently, and rated the bridge as more fear evoking than the low stable bridge. (With my fear of heights, not a bridge I would ever cross.) In response to a story prompt, the men were more likely to include sexual themes if they were on the high, anxiety provoking bridge. Interestingly, the woman interviewer provided a phone number to the men so they could call later to obtain the experimental results. Guess who called back - the men on who encountered the woman on the high anxiety provoking bridge. The men on the high bridge were aroused and Dutton and Aron argued that they attributed the arousal to their interest in the woman.

Many forms of physiological arousal are difficult to differentiate. We feel aroused: increased heart rate, sweaty palms, cognitively alert. We then search the environment for the reason - what is causing me to feel arousal in this context? In some ways, this harkens back to William James' theory of emotion. According to James, we have a biological response and attribute that response to an emotion based on the current context. James recommended, for example, whistling past the graveyard - act happy and you'll start to feel happy.

Dutton and Aron's point is that people have a bias to attribute physiological arousal to their interaction with other people, particularly members of the opposite sex. For the men on that bridge, they mistakenly interpreted their arousal as at least partially caused by their interaction with the attractive woman. They don't respond with sexual themes, and they don't call, if the interviewer on the high bridge is a man. Put a woman out in the middle of that bridge, however, and men will assume that their elevated heart rate is caused by how attractive they find that woman.

The implication is that any physiological arousal can be misattributed to feelings for the other person. I can imagine some nice first date ideas. Going out for coffee (which may increase heart rate), for example, may be better than drinking other beverages. Going dancing or participating in some other aerobic activity might be more advantageous than sitting quietly in a dark, calm movie theater (of course horror films that raise anxiety levels and heart rate may also get misinterpreted as love).

Mistaken attributions are not limited to feelings of arousal. One of my colleagues, James Graham, has argued that people erroneously attribute feelings of flow and success to their relationship partner. In a week long study, Graham had relationship partners rate the quality of various activities and rate how they felt about their partners during those activities. Graham found that when relationship partners were in a joint activity, that greater positive affect resulting from the activity improved how people felt about their relationship. Graham has argued that the effect is particularly powerful when the joint activity is a flow activity. A flow activity is one in which individuals are challenged by the activity at a level that matches their skill level. People mistakenly attribute their positive affect resulting from the flow experience as being about their partner rather than the activity.

Graham has offered advice for improving and strengthening relationships based on the misattribution of arousal and positive affect. In essence, partners should engage in challenging activities together. The activity could be almost anything: Partners could cook together, go dancing, play games, participate in sports, play music, listen to music, or enjoy drama. The key thing is that the activity should be challenging, but at a level that meets their individual skills. When the partners achieve success, they will enjoy the activity. They will then misattribute the activity's positive affect to how they feel about their partner. When we enjoy joint activities, some of the arousal and joy gets transferred to our romantic partners.