A haunted house on a first date: great idea or disaster in the making?
According to science, it’s the former. Why? Scaring your date can make him or her fall in love with you.
No, it’s not some twisted Stockholm Syndrome thing. It’s a phenomenon known as misattribution of arousal (or the equally snappy excitation transfer, depending on which academic journal you’re reading). Basically, when your body is physiologically aroused — and not necessarily in the sexual way; we’re talking skyrocketing blood pressure, drenched palms and a heart rate like a dubstep bass line — your brain mistakenly links that feeling with whatever’s in your environment. So if you’re in your date’s direct line of sight as his or her heart goes pitter-patter, he won’t just blame the slasher flick—he’ll convince himself you’re a heartthrob. (So “Paranormal Activity 3″ might not be a bad date idea, either.)
“If you stand in front of a really attractive person, you’ll have all those same arousal tendencies — your heart beats fast, your palms get sweaty,” explains Jeremy Nicholson, Ph.D., a psychologist in Boston. “You can actually create the arousal clues that’ll help someone fall for you.”
And how can you create those cues? Utilize adrenaline-pumpin’ fear. Researchers first happened upon this little shortcut to woo-age in the ‘70s. Psychologists at the University of British Columbia had a cute female research assistant administer a survey to guys as they crossed one of two bridges: a sturdy, wooden, safe-feeling one, or a rickety, swaying suspension bridge. Part of the post-bridge walk survey asked the men to make up a story about a girl. The guys on the terrifying bridge, whose hearts were already pounding, came up with much sexier tales. When she was done with the questionnaire, the experimenter tore off a corner of the survey, wrote down her name and number and told each guy to call if he wanted to talk further (wink, wink). Nine out of 18 of the scary-bridge-walkers gave her a ring; just two of the 16 sturdy-bridge-crossers called. Taking into account their in-the-gutter minds and their desire to ask her out, researchers concluded that those whose hearts were pounding convinced themselves they were more attracted to the chick with the clipboard.
Notice that they weren’t just crushing on her in the moment — they actually followed up. “This is called classical conditioning,” Nicholson explains. “We associate the feeling with the other person, and once we make up our minds that the excitement is because of them, the association sticks.”
The survey results have been duplicated. More recently, researchers sniffed out the same effect at an amusement park. They approached people who either were in line for a roller-coaster or had just gotten off of it, and showed them a picture of an average-looking person of the opposite sex. They asked the subjects to rate the person’s attractiveness and — surprise, surprise — those who’d just climbed out of their harnesses found the pictured stranger much more attractive. The authors write, “it is during this period of residual excitement that an individual who is exposed to a subsequent emotion-provoking situation may misattribute the residual excitement to their current situation.” Translation: You’ll attribute a pounding heart to whatever ends up under your nose.
Brave daters, here are a few tips for making the misattribution of arousal effect better your love life.
1. Get your partner’s heart pumping.
Haunted houses or scary movies are a good bet, but so are dancing (aerobic, no?) and consuming caffeine. “Your date will think you’re making his heart flutter when really it’s just the triple espresso,” Nicholson says. Can’t stand the thought of a stone-sober date? “Have a Red-Bull-and-vodka and make some bad decisions,” he advises.
2. Act quickly.
As researchers noted, the period of “excitation” subsides shortly after the scary stimulus (bridge, haunted house, Craven film, whatever) ends. “You can’t send someone to the movies and then three hours later and expect the effect to work,” Nicholson says.
3. Make yourself the center of attention.
Not in an obnoxious way, of course. But when your date is trying to pinpoint the cause of her sweaty palms, you want her eyes to settle on you. Maintain eye contact throughout the coffee date, or grab her hand during the haunted hayride. Physical contact is a necessary ingredient in any good date, Nicholson adds: “People don’t touch enough on dates, and then it’s awkward when you try to get romantic. You’ve been complete strangers for the whole date and then you’re standing there wondering how to bridge that big gap and make a move.”
Psychologist’s orders: Be bold. Be touchy. And be very, very afraid. Now, go put this advice to good use and post a date like these HowAboutWe members who are, apparently, ahead of the curve.
Andrea Bartz is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She’s contributed to Psychology Today, SELF, Money, Martha Stewart Living, and CNN.com. She’s also the coauthor of the blog and book Stuff Hipsters Hate. She likes wooded parks, the Twitter, live music and good cheese.