Misattribution of Arousal Paradigm

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The misattribution of arousal paradigm occurs when arousal arises for one reason but receives another cognitive label, thereby producing a different reaction (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). This misattribution may result from excitation transfer which is when the arousal from one event transfers to a subsequent event (Cantor, Zillmann, & Bryant, 1975). For example, if a person thought they were drinking decaffeinated tea when in reality they were drinking tea with caffeine, they might search for some label to give their unexplained aroused state. Later, if something frustrating happened, the person might get angrier because of their extra, unexplained arousal (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008).

Research using the Misattribution of Arousal Paradigm

Many social psychologists use the misattribution of arousal paradigm to determine if people really understand what makes them act the way they do. In 1962, Schachter and Singer conducted a study using misattribution of arousal. In this experiment, participants were told that the researchers were studying the “effect of vitamin injections on visual skills” and gave participants a shot of adrenaline or saline (control). Participants who received the shot of adrenaline were either informed about the side effects of the injection, or not informed, and then all participants were exposed to either a happy confederate or an angry confederate. Schachter and Singer hypothesized that participants would express the same emotion as the confederates. As a result, they found that the participants who received the adrenaline shot but were not informed about getting it were more likely to express the same emotional state as the confederate they were exposed to. Their findings show that because the people were aroused by adrenaline, but had no explanation or label for it, they attributed their arousal to a feeling that they saw another person expressing (Schachter & Singer, 1962).

Dutton and Aron (1974) conducted one of the most famous experiments using the misattribution of arousal paradigm. In this experiment, Dutton and Aron had an attractive female experimenter stand at the end of either a scary bridge (which presumably increased participants’ arousal) or a safer bridge. After male participants walked across either bridge, the female experimenter asked them to fill out a survey and gave them her phone number to call if they had any further questions. The dependent variable was to see which group of men was more likely to call the woman. The men who walked across the scary (and arousing) bridge were more likely to call the woman, most likely because they misattributed their arousal from the bridge for arousal (and attraction) for the woman (Dutton & Aron, 1974).

Capbridge.jpg Arousal Increasing Bridge (Dutton & Aron 1974) Psychology 404 Blog http://www.psychology404.blogspot.com/

In 1977, Kenrick and Cialdini criticized Dutton and Aron’s experiment and reported four failures to replicate the study, one exact replication and three with minor variations. Their criticism was that people could not misattribute negative arousal (the scary bridge) for positive arousal, which was the attractive woman (Kenrick & Cialdini, 1977). On the other hand, an experiment done by White, Fishbein, and Rutstein (1981) on passionate love and the misattribution of arousal confirmed Dutton and Aron’s findings. In this experiment, White and his colleagues had male participants listen to tapes that were either positive (comedy tape) or negative (mutilation tape), while other subjects heard a non-arousing tape (textbook excerpt). After listening to the tapes, the participants were exposed to either attractive female confederates or unattractive female confederates. The results for this experiment showed that the men who listened to the arousing tapes (both positive and negative) reported liking the attractive confederates more and the unattractive confederates less than the men who listened to the non-arousing tapes (White et al., 1981). These findings suggest that positive and negative arousal can both be misattributed as positive arousal (White et al., 1981).

Cognitive Dissonance and Misattribution of Arousal

Misattribution of arousal is many times associated with cognitive dissonance. In 1980, Fries and Frey did an experiment on the misattribution of arousal and the effects of self-threatening information (Fries & Frey, 1980). In their experiment, they had participants take an intelligence test, and then the participants were given a pill labeled “arousing”, but were told that their pill was either strong or weak. After receiving the pill, the participants were given false negative feedback about their test results. The greater alleged strength of the pill, the more likely participants were to claim that they put a lot of effort into the test. Also, Fries and Frey found that participants who took the pill that was supposedly “strong” were more likely to misattribute their discomfort from getting negative results to the unpleasant and arousing pill (Fries et al., 1980).

Another study focusing on misattribution of arousal and cognitive dissonance was conducted by Zanna, Cooper, and Taves in 1978. Zanna and his colleagues were trying to prove that dissonance is actually caused physiological arousal. In their experiment, participants were given a pill (which was a placebo) and told it would make them feel tense or relaxed (Zanna et al., 1978). After that, participants had to write an essay banning free speech, which was counter-attitudinal. Zanna and Cooper used the induced compliance technique, which is when someone gets you to do something you normally wouldn’t want to, and said that it was up to the participant but it would “really help them [the experimenters] out” if they wrote the paper (Zanna et al., 1978). The results showed that the participants who were told their pill would make them feel tense misattributed their feelings of arousal caused by their cognitive dissonance to the “tense” pill (Zanna et al., 1978).

Works Cited

Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Social Psychology & Human Nature. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Cantor, J. R., Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1975). Enhancement of experienced sexual arousal in response to erotic stimuli through misattribution of unrelated residual excitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(1), 69-75.

Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(4), 510-517.

Fries, A., & Frey, D. (1980). Misattribution of Arousal and the Effects of Self-Threatening Information. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16(5), 405-416.

Kenrick, D. T., & Cialdini, R. B. (1977). Romantic attraction: Misattribution versus reinforcement explanations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(6), 381-391.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69(5), 379-399.

White, G., Fishbein, S., & Rutstein, J. (1981). Passionate Love and the Misattribution of Arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(1), 56-62.

Zanna, M., Cooper, J., & Taves, P. (1978). Arousal as a Necessary Condition for Attitude Change Following Induced Compliance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(10), 1101-1106.

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