You might remember the 1994 movie Speed, where the characters portrayed by Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock have to drive a passenger-filled bus over 50mph through downtown Los Angeles to prevent a bomb from exploding and killing them all. Of course, they accomplish this terrifying feat, and by the end of the movie they have fallen in love. (If you haven’t seen the movie, you can watch the 2 minute version here or think about the Fast & Furious franchise instead.)
The movie’s basic premise may be the stuff of wild Hollywood imaginations. But what about the idea that driving fast and near-death experiences can lead to attraction between two strangers? This probably seems pretty far-flung, but in fact, the producers of Speed got this part right.
There’s good reason to think that experiencing a terrifying event together can cause attraction between strangers. In particular, situations that elevate your arousal have been shown to heighten attraction. Arousal, eh? Get your mind out of the gutter; what scientists mean by “arousal” is somewhat different than the sexual arousal you may be thinking about, although, as you’ll see, the two are linked in interesting ways. When we say “arousal,” we are referring to things like alertness, engagement, and a heightened level of physical activity, such as an elevated heart rate.
That feeling you get when you’ve narrowly avoided a car accident is a prime example of elevated arousal, and it turns out that you are primed to be attracted to people you meet when you are experiencing higher levels of arousal, especially when you don’t even know it.
Imagine that you’re out hiking in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia and you come to a bridge that you must cross to reach the other side of the canyon. But, this isn’t just any bridge. This particular bridge is straight out of an Indiana Jones movie: it is shaky and wobbly, longer than a football field, and is swaying 20 stories high in the air over a river chock-full of jagged rocks. As you cross the bridge you meet an experimenter who shows you an ambiguous picture and asks you to tell a story about what might be taking place in that scene. As you finish your response, the experimenter gives you his/her phone number in case you “have any questions about the study” and you continue on your way. Meanwhile, further down the river, other participants did the same thing and talked to the same experimenter while crossing a sturdy and wide bridge that was only 10 feet above the water.
The psychologists who conducted this experiment, Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron,1 wanted to see if the shaky bridge led the males in their study to express greater attraction to the female experimenter. Before we get to the findings, really imagine yourself crossing the shaky bridge…you feel a bit nervous and unsure of yourself, your heart is beating, your stomach feels a bit queasy, and you are sweating just a bit – the fear of plunging to your death has a way of doing that. This physiological response is likely a reasonable reaction for a bridge crossing, but it also sounds an awful lot like that feeling of almost getting into a car wreck, and it also resembles the nervousness you experience when you’re around an attractive stranger. Dutton and Aron speculated that walking across the bridge created a sense of arousal that participants would mistakenly believe was caused by the experimenter, rather than the physical environment – “Why is my heart racing? I must be attracted to you!” Sure enough, they discovered that males who crossed the shaky bridge were actually more likely to call the experimenter (presumably because they were attracted to her) than the males who crossed the sturdy bridge. Moreover, those same shaky-bridge guys wrote stories that contained more sexual content than those who crossed the sturdy bridge. They interpreted these findings as evidence that the guys on the shaky bridge misattributed the arousal caused by the shaky bridge to the experimenter – putting their minds in the gutter and making them more likely to pursue her.
So, there you have it: arousal can promote attraction. But can you take it too far? Well, a very elaborate setup (that ultimately turned out to be for a car commercial) took the idea of “speed dating” to the extreme. Judging from the men’s reactions, the results of this technique were mixed, so don’t try driving recklessly just to get someone to think you’re hot.
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1Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510–517.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.