Sunday, February 15, 2009

Love, fear and other cases of mistaken identity

If this bridge is rockin’…

Another Valentine's Day bites the dust. In its wake there will no doubt be countless readers out there in blogspace looking at their love life, wondering how they might go about adding a second person into it – Romeos looking for their Juliet, Barbies looking for their Ken, Parises looking for a Paris (or Nick, or Rick, or Stavros, or…). For those people I have but one piece of advice: fear is your friend.

It seems a little counter-intuitive, but next time you’re out to impress that special someone, the best approach mightn’t be roses and candle-lit dinners but instead some sparsely bolted overhanging rock, maybe a spot of downhill biking or even a double-black-diamond ski run if the snow’s in good shape (but remember, the goal here is to gently frighten – not kill or maim). It sounds insane, but it’s based on solid evidence.

Back in 1974, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron from the University of British Columbia, put together a series of experiments involving rickety bridges and sexy researchers. Their hypothesis said that people should find an attractive person really attractive in the presence of a strong emotional stimulus – like fear.

The two canny Canadians set up a series of experiments, the most famous of which involved a good-looking female researcher who would interview randomly selected male subjects half way along two bridges – one safe; one high, windy, unstable and scary.

The at the interview she’d go through a series of decoy questions, then show the subject a picture of a young woman covering her face with one hand and reaching out with the other and ask “tell me what you see here”. At the conclusion of each interview she would hand out her phone number, “just in case you have any questions about the study.” The researchers then rated the sexual content of the picture responses and counted the number of calls, comparing between the two bridges.

The results showed the sexual content of the picture responses on the scary bridge to be double that of the sedate bridge and nearly five times as many subjects phoned the researcher after being on the scary bridge, compared to the sedate one. The conclusion; the unsuspecting guys were ‘mistaking’ their fear-induced heightened state of arousal for being head-over-heels love-struck for the researcher!

Other experiments in the study, as well as subsequent trials have, on the whole, confirmed their findings. These days the body of knowledge they developed is known as the “misattribution of arousal paradigm”. If you’re feeling geeky, you can check out the original study here.

Who would have thought, the secret that’s kept ski instructors’ and rafting guides’ beds warm for decades is actually an established scientific principle. Why isn’t it surprising that that the Canadians discovered it.