Misattribution of Arousal (Definition + Examples)

What does an amusement park, a scary movie, and a rock climbing wall have in common? Well, they all get your heart pumping. They all give you a rush of excitement at one point. And they make great first dates. Part of the reason that these three date ideas are so successful is that they get you and your date’s heart pounding.  By the end of the date, you might find yourself looking at the other person with butterflies in your stomach. 

These butterflies aren’t always the result of your attraction to the other person. But you might still tell yourself that you had a hot date. This is called misattribution of arousal, and it’s pretty fascinating. It’s one of the many ways that our brains might get its wires crossed or make a mistake about how we’re feeling. 

What Is Misattribution of Arousal? 

Misattribution of Arousal is a psychological phenomenon in which someone attributes their arousal to one stimulus, even though different stimuli may have caused it. A theme park date may excite a young man. The rollercoaster actually caused his heart to race, but he attributes the sensation to his date.

In fact, there are a ton of different ways that our brains misattribute information. “Misattribute” simply means to make a mistake. Social psychologists have studied a handful of different misattributions that distort the way that we see the world or remember things. The misattribution of arousal is particularly interesting, because it involves completely arbitrary activities, like running or watching a scary movie, to how attractive someone else may seem to us. 

“Arousal” doesn’t always mean sexual arousal. “To arouse” simply means to awaken or to set off a certain feeling. It could refer to the arousal of our fight-or-flight response or to awaken someone from sleep. 

definition of arousal in psychology

Think about your body’s response when you’re in love or about to go on an exciting first date. Your heart is racing, your palms get sweaty, and you might feel anxious. Now think about your body’s response to a suspenseful movie or inching up a roller coaster. Same reactions, right? 

We are meaning-making creatures. Our brains want an explanation for the way that we feel. On a date, we may mistake our sweaty palms and racing heart for sexual arousal, when really we are just nervous about rock climbing or seeing a horror movie. 

misattribution of arousal

Why Is Misattribution of Arousal Called “The Suspension Bridge Effect?” 

In 1974, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron put this theory to the test. They created an experiment in which male participants walked across two bridges. One bridge was sturdy and low to the ground. The other was suspended high in the air, so it was less sturdy. 

The researchers hypothesized that the participants may misattribute their arousal from the scary bridge and think that they were more attracted to a woman who they met during the study. 

They recruited the woman to meet the participants at two different parts during the test. 

The first meeting was at the middle of the bridge. The woman gave the men a Thematic Apperception Test, in which they had to tell a story based on an image. The image was not meant to invoke sexual themes in the story. 

The men who were on the suspension bridge were much more likely to bring in sexual themes to the story than the men who were not on the suspension bridge. 

But the experiment wasn’t over. The woman also met the men at the end of the bridge or a small distance away from the end of the bridge, at a point where the men would have calmed down from the excitement of the suspension bridge. (By the way, the woman did not know the hypothesis behind the experiment.) She was instructed to give each of the men her phone number and tell them that if they had any questions, they should call her. 

woman on a bridge study

The same experiment was done with a male at the end of the bridge. There was no difference in whether the (presumably straight) participants called the male after the experiment was over. But there was a different when the researchers recruited a woman for the experiment. The men who met the woman immediately after leaving the suspension bridge were more likely to call the woman than the men who met her at a distance away from the suspension bridge. This proved the researcher’s hypothesis. 

It Goes Both Ways 

A few other experiments aimed to replicate the findings of the bridge experiment in 1974. One in particular expanded the idea of how misattribution affects attraction. In 1981, researchers published “Passionate Love and the Misattribution of Arousal.” (What a name!) The publication involved two different experiments in which men were asked to watch a video of a woman talking about themselves and rate the attractiveness of that woman. The videos were filmed in a way to make the woman appear more or less attractive. 

Some men were put through exercise tests before the videos in order to create a state of arousal. The researchers found that the “aroused” men weren’t just more likely to rate the “attractive” women as more attractive than the control group. They were also more likely to rate the “unattractive” women as less attractive. 

Music and Misattribution Of Arousal 

There have been studies on misattribution of arousal in women, too. (There haven’t been any significant studies on misattribution of arousal in the LGBTQ population, although this Reddit post discusses how misattribution of arousal may affect the asexual community.) One study in particular shows that different types of arousal may affect men and women. 

In 2017, researchers published, “Misattribution of musical arousal increases sexual attraction towards opposite-sex faces in females.” The findings were pretty much self-explanatory. When women were aroused by listening to music, they were more likely to rate neutral male faces as attractive than women who rated the faces in silence. 

How is Misattribution of Arousal Related to Self-Perception Theory?

Self-perception theory is the idea that our self-concept comes from our observations and what we make of those observations. Misattribution of arousal falls under this theory and shows that our observations may not always be “right.” We determine our attraction to another person based on our interpretation of our bodily signals, whether we know where they are actually coming from or not.

You might be thinking, “I know what I’m doing for my next date!” But the real lesson regarding misattribution of arousal should be the importance of knowing yourself and your body. You may think that the butterflies in your stomach may be from the girl you see across the room or even the food that you see in front of you. But that attractiveness may just be due to other feelings within the body. The more you can become self-aware of what is happening in your body, the less likely you will misattribute arousal and attraction.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.