Dating on TV and the Misattribution of Arousal

Summer is synonymous with long days, warm weather and reality shows on the TV screens of many households. One of the most popular reality television series is the Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise. Every season, a man or woman tries to find love by meeting 25 members of the opposite sex, going on thrilling, romantic dates and eventually whittling down the competition to one lucky finalist. As you can probably imagine, the show has a fairly terrible matchmaking track record – of the couples who meet on the show, most never even make it to a long-term relationship, let alone walk down the aisle after the show ends. However, part of what makes the show so compelling is that during filming, multiple contestants actually believe that they are falling in love with the bachelor or the bachelorette.

So, why do the romances that start out so hot and heavy on TV fizzle out once the cameras stop rolling? One aspect may have to do with what psychologists call the misattribution of arousal. According to this concept, people can be mistaken as to what is causing them to feel aroused (i.e., anxious, stimulated and alert). They may attribute their arousal to their feelings towards another person rather than certain characteristics of the situation.

In a famous demonstration of this concept, Dutton and Aron (1974) had an attractive woman approach men while they were crossing a high, scary bridge or a small, non-scary bridge. The men who met the woman while they were nervous and afraid crossing the high suspension bridge were more likely to call the woman afterwards and ask her for a date.  The researchers theorized that the men who were nervous crossing the bridge misattributed their symptoms and thought that they were experiencing feelings of attraction towards the woman (rather than nervousness crossing the bridge).

The misattribution of arousal is part of the reason that couples are advised to “keep the spark alive” by going on adventurous dates together. It can also explain why people who are filming a reality show, with bright lights and cameras tracking their every move, can feel like they are experiencing intense emotions towards another person, when it just might be a consequence of the environment they find themselves in. Later, when the show has finished taping, these couples may not have the compatibility necessary for a long-term relationship. Drama might make for great TV, but once the cameras are off it’s a whole other story.

For further reading: Dutton, D. G. and Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510–517.