We make our decisions about romantic partners for reasons that we may not be aware of. Yet once we’ve fallen for someone our pulses quicken and our emotions take over, and we know we’re attracted. But if a quickly beating heart and sweaty palms are sure signs that we fancy someone, is it possible that we can misinterpret the message? If our heart is racing for some other reason might we still think it’s because we fancy someone?
A group in Canada went to a canyon to ﬁnd out. They picked an attractive woman to survey some people crossing bridges. The ﬁrst bridge was suspended over a two hundred foot drop into the rapids below. It swayed, tilted and wobbled as sightseers crossed, clasping onto the handrail before taking each step. The second bridge was wider, ﬁrmer and solidly constructed in spite of only being ten feet above a shallow rivulet.
Whenever a young, unaccompanied man crossed one of the bridges, the pretty experimenter approached him and asked if he would mind helping her with an assignment for her psychology class. She claimed to be interested in the effects of scenic attractions on creative expression, and asked him to write a short, dramatic story for her. Afterwards she thanked the participant and, explaining that she was short of time, offered to describe the experiment in more detail later. She scribbled her name and phone number on a sheet of paper and asked him to call if he wanted to talk further.
Back at the lab, experimenters graded the stories for sexual content on a one to ﬁve scale. If the most sexual thing in the story was a kiss it garnered a three, whilst any intercourse rated a ﬁve, for example. The stories of men who had been crossing the high, rickety bridge were on average more than a point higher on the scale, and the men weren’t just thinking sexually in an abstract way. Of those who had crossed the low, stable arch less than ten per cent rang the attractive experimenter, whilst nearly forty percent of those who had been crossing the palpitation-inducing bridge called her.
Because our conscious minds don’t have access to why our pulse is really raised or our cheeks are ﬂushed, it can mix up fear and lust. Yet as romance is a social emotion, the brain has to rely on the cues of consciousness to decide what to do. Perhaps teenage boys aren’t quite as stupid as they seem when they take their dates to horror ﬂicks rather than wishy-washy rom-coms. But if you overuse the fear tactic for romantic ends and get arrested, please don’t tell the judge I told you to. He might infer you’re not as contrite as you ought to be and send you down.
References, and many more tips, tricks and tangles of your mind, within Chris Paley's Unthink (Amazon link)