Do We Really Understand Our Feelings?
They Thought They Were Sexually Aroused, But They Were Only Frightened.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia studied the reaction of middle-aged men who were crossing a long, narrow, “fear-arousing” suspension bridge constructed of wooden planks and wire cables that tilted, swayed, and wobbled 230 feet over a raging river. An attractive young woman approached each man and asked if he would complete a short questionnaire. After finishing the survey, the woman gave each man her telephone number with an invitation for her to explain her research in more detail. Here is the experimental manipulation: The woman approached some of the men before they crossed the bridge and some after they completed the harrowing crossing. Results showed that men who were approached after the crossing were significantly more likely to call for more detail.
The researchers concluded that the men who met the woman immediately after crossing the shaky, swaying suspension bridge were experiencing intense physiological arousal, which they would typically have identified as fear. But because they were being interviewed by an attractive woman, they mistakenly identified their arousal as sexual attraction. “People can be wrong about what they are feeling.”
Distinguished emotion researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett tells us that “Emotions are your brain’s best guess of how you should feel in the moment. Emotions aren’t wired into your brain like little circuits; they’re made on-demand. As a result, you have more control over your emotions than you might think.” When we have an emotional response, many times it’s just that: a heightened general arousal.
Experiments like the Capilano bridge research show that the experience of arousal can be ambiguous and therefore misattributed to an incorrect stimulus. We seek to make sense of our internal states and may misattribute the actual cause of the increased arousal to something else that seems plausible.
The physiological clues associated with emotion can be relatively diffuse, leaving our experience open to the influence of situational cues and labels. We often attach the label fear to the arousal we are experiencing when there is something in the environment we regard as frightening. Similarly, we apply the label excitement to the arousal we experience when we see or hear something we are especially glad to encounter. This leaves a window of interpretation for those astute enough to sense this constructive opportunity to create a positive perception. Naming an emotion and putting it into a positive context can create long-lasting effects. This is exactly what Lucas’s grandfather did.
Lucas grew up around horses and was quite comfortable with them. At age ten, his grandparents took him on the annual trail ride. When it was time to go on the ride, his Papa told him that if anything bad happened that he should just jump off the horse. Shortly after mounting, a branch snapped, scaring the colt and it started to run around recklessly. Lucas recalls, “I remember my papa yelling at me to hang on. While desperately looking for a place to jump off, Papa somehow calmed the colt down. I was so scared and I didn’t want to ride anymore, but my Papa looked at me and told me that I had done so well that he was proud of me. From then on, I loved riding the horses that had a little spunk.”
Lucas’s grandfather acted quickly to interpret Lucas’s arousal. The bolting colt produced a burst of neurological arousal. Papa quickly labeled Lucas’s experience as one of excitement that eventually led to pride. If Papa had not intervened by interpreting the emotion or had Papa looked fearful himself (giving a cue of fear) it would likely have continued as distress, and Lucas would have probably feared spirited horses rather than preferred them. The window to name generalized arousal is brief. Once an emotion is labeled, it perpetuates.
Some of us already do this instinctively, but now informed, we can do it strategically.
For a free eBook on The Power of Surprise in the Practical NeuroWisdom series, click the link below.
Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
Dutton, Donald G., and Arthur P. Aron. “Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety.” Journal of personality and social psychology 30, no. 4 (1974): 510.
Michael Rousell PhD is the author of The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs. He studies life-changing events.