Even though our emotions are generally not things we can consciously dictate, we consider ourselves fairly accurate judges of which emotions we’re actually experiencing. As it turns out, we may not even be as good at that as we thought. It appears that in certain circumstances, we tend to wrongly attribute, or assign, certain emotions to our bodily state, when in fact that bodily state is reflecting another emotion entirely. One such example is the infamous “Suspension Bridge” experiment, published in 1974.
The experiment had a rather unusual setup. It took place on two different footbridges which spanned a river at different points. One was a suspension bridge over a canyon, made of boards and cables, which wobbled easily and had low handrails. This bridge was meant to create a feeling of anxiety and unease in the participants. The control condition was the second bridge, which was much lower, wider, and sturdier.
As male passersby walked off the bridge, they were asked by a female interviewer (described in the paper as “attractive”) to fill out a questionnaire. When the men had finished, the interviewer then gave them her number so that if they wanted, they could call her to talk more about the experiment. The number of phone calls that the interviewer subsequently received was supposed to indicate the level of attraction experienced by the participants.
The results were that the men who were interviewed on the suspension bridge were at least twice as likely to follow up and call the interviewer as compared to the control group (the “safe” bridge). The researchers hypothesized that the more dangerous bridge created a state of fright and physiological arousal in the passersby. This arousal consisted of increased heart rate and blood pressure, elevated levels of adrenaline, and so on, which is not unlike the state caused by physical attraction. Thus, after the passersby had encountered the female interviewer, they were likely to attribute the cause of their aroused state to the attractiveness of the interviewer, rather than the thrill of crossing the suspension bridge.
The study was far from perfect, as the researchers admitted, but the results lent credence to the idea that we are not always the best judges of our own emotions. At this point it is not well understood what, if anything, we can do to make the process of identifying our emotions less fallible. One prediction you might want to keep in mind: feeling nervous about a first date with someone could actually make you feel more attracted to that person.