Experiences can shape our emotions

We’ve talked before about how expectations can shape our experience. Well, guess what – our experiences can shape our emotions, but not in ways you’d expect. Psychologists call this phenomenon the misattribution of arousal. Here arousal isn’t sexual, it means an elevation of your emotional state.

When we are frightened our heart rate increases, our focus narrows, our eyes dilate, we become flushed, our palms sweat. These are the physiological responses to fear. Turns out they are also the same responses we get when we’re attracted to someone. For our bodies – this is an elevated state of arousal. And our brains may misinterpret the cause of that arousal and ‘misattribute it’ towards something or someone else. Given we are predisposed to explain the world mainly through people’s actions, we may take a scary situation and redirect that elevated sense of arousal towards the nearest person.

This was the concept behind a famous test by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron who scared male participants by forcing them to walk over a narrow bridge. They had an attractive female researcher ask them questions mid-way across. During the test, the female researcher gave the men her number in case they had any questions afterwards. In their aroused states, the men misinterpreted their fear for attraction to the researcher. We know because far more of them called her compared to a second group who were interviewed after crossing the bridge (when they weren’t in an aroused state). Our brains notice the physical state created by a fearful situation and explain it as attraction to this rather beautiful person asking questions. Heart is pumping, feeling hot – must be love.

In another example of how our physical state can impact our emotions, psychologist Fritz Strak ran an experiment in which participants read comics while holding a pen between their teeth. If you do that, some of the muscles you use for smiling will contract. He found that because it felt like they were smiling, this group’s brains interpreted the sensation as if they actually were smiling – so they enjoyed the comics. By contrast, a second group held the pen between their lips, which contracts some of the muscles used in frowning. These participants enjoyed the comics much less because their brains interpreted the sensation as a real frown. In both instances, the brain misinterprets the information it’s getting, assumes the wrong emotion and changes the experience.

Reading the signals – wrongly

Have you ever wondered why people find candlelight dinners romantic? When the lights turn down low, it may add to a sense of privacy but it also means our pupils dilate to let in more light. When else do our pupils dilate? When we are attracted to someone. So next time you are out to dinner, your brain may be telling you that your partner is really into you – when, in fact, they simply can’t see too well. (For some of us, that might also be a plus but that’s a different issue).

While we’re on the topic of dating, the misattribution of arousal is interesting when it comes to relationship building. That candlelit dinner might not work as well as an exciting adventure, a trip to the gym, a double espresso at the coffee shop or even a scary movie. Your date’s aroused state will be projected onto you. In fact, some studies have suggested this helps in marital counselling – repeated thrilling experiences are projected onto and associated with the spouse.

So our brains are continuously trying to explain the world – to make the sensations our body experiences fit into a narrative. Sometimes when we’re excited or fearful, we get that story wrong – and project positive feelings onto the wrong person. But hey, next time someone comes up to you in the dimly lit gym cafe – opening up with an explanation of ‘misattribution of arousal’ probably isn’t your best bet.