One of the more popular theories of emotion during the 60s and 70s was Schachter and Singer’s two-factor theory1. The theory is pretty simple. As the name suggests, it states that emotions have two components: arousal and a cognitive component that involves “labeling” the emotion based on context. Schacter and Singer’s famous study involved giving participants either epinephrine or a placebo, and telling them that they were getting vitamin injections (I’m a sucker for studies with deception). The participants were told that the purpose of the study was to measure the effects of the vitamins on vision. Participants who received the epinephrine injection were assigned to one of three conditions. One third of the participants weren’t told anything about side effects, a third were told about the actual side effects of epinephrine (increased heart rate, increased respiration rate, etc.; ), and the final third were told they might experience a bogus set of side effects that included headaches and numbness in their feet. After their injections, all of the participants were taken into another room where they interacted with a confederate (an experimenter pretending to be another participant). In one condition, the confederate played with things in the room, and in the other, the confederate expressed anger about the nature of the experiment. Finally, participants were given a questionnaire that asked them to rate how happy and angry they were.
The results were as follows: when exposed to the confederate who was playing around, the misinformed participants rated themselves as happiest, the participants who’d received epinephrine but hadn’t been told about the side effects were the next happiest, and the participants who’d been correctly informed about the side effects were the least happy. The pattern was the same for participants exposed to the angry confederate. In other words, when people didn’t have an explanation for the arousal caused by the epinephrine injections, they attributed their arousal to the situation (the behavior of the confederate), and when they did have an explanation (they’d been told the real side effects), they attributed it to the injection. That’s exactly what the two-factor theory predicted would happen.
That study’s cool and all, but it’s got nothing on a two-factor theory studies by Dutton and Aron2, one of which is among the coolest studies ever. They conducted three studies, but the first one had some problems, so I’ll just tell you about the second and third. In the second study, they had participants cross a footbridge suspended 230 feet above a river. There were two manipulations. One involved who approached experimenters and asked them to copmlete a survey. Half of the participants (all males; I don’t think they asked about sexual orientation, but it’s been a while since I last read the paper) were approached by an “attractive” female, and half by an “average-looking” guy. The other manipulation involved where they were approached. Half of the participants were approached while still on the footbridge, and half were approached on the ground several minutes after they’d crossed the bridge. After the survey was completed, the experimenter gave the participants his or her phone number and told them that they could call to ask for more information about the survey.
As you can imagine, being on a footbridge 230 feet above a river is arousing, so the two-factor theory prediction was that the guys surveyed on the bridge would attribute their arousal to the attractive female, and therefore be more likely to call her for more information. Almost 40% of the participants surveyed on the bridge called the female experimenter for more information, while only 9% of those surveyed on land called her. The effect was much smaller for the male experimenter (9% for on the bridge, 5% for on the land).
Dutton and Aron replicated the second study in the lab by telling male participants (again, I don’t remember any information about their sexual orientation) that they would receive either a mild or severe shock. Presumably, those who were told that they would receive a severe shock would be pretty aroused, while those who were told that they’d receive a mild shock would be less so. After being told about the shock, the participants interacted with an attractive female confederate, and were then asked questions about how much they’d like to go out with her or kiss her. Participants who’d been told that they’d receive a severe shock wanted to go out with and kiss her significantly more than participants who had been told that they’d receive a mild shock.
So that’s the famous footbridge study. It provided pretty strong evidence for the two-factor theory, but the theory has fallen out of favor, largely because in other contexts such effects are difficult to replicate, and the misattribution of arousal seems to be dependent on several conditions that have little to do with arousal and context. Still, the Dutton and Aron study does suggest that if you really want to get someone to go out with you, you should ask them on a footbridge, or at least tell them that you’re going to give them a severe shock.
1Schachter, S. & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379–399.
2Dutton, 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.