This classic piece of research offers insight into the way context may influence blame and anger.
Picture yourself stepping out to cross this suspension bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Capilano Canyon Bridge is 230 feet high, 450 feet long. And it sways in the breeze.
Now imagine that, just as you pass the midpoint in the bridge, when your anxiety is about peak, an attractive person of the gender toward which you’re romantically inclined asks you if you’d be willing to stop, answer a questionnaire, and do an imagination exercise. After you’re done, s/he tells you s/he’d be happy to discuss the study further if you want to call that evening, then tears off a corner of the paper, writes down his or her phone number, and hands it to you.
Do you call?
In 1974, psychologists Art Aron and Donald Dutton found that about 50% of their male participants did call the female survey taker in their classic experiment. When the bridge was wide, sturdy, and just a few feet off the ground, only 12.5% called. In this and a series of related experiments, they showed that when we’re in a heightened state of arousal, like the kind the Capilano Canyon Bridge would create in most of us, we naturally look for context and can easily mistake the source of that arousal. They called this experience misattribution of arousal.
For many of the men on the swaying bridge 230 feet in the air, the attractive woman was conflated with the rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing caused by being on the bridge. In an argument, misattribution of arousal may cause us to blame the other person for our heightened state…or be blamed by our conversation partner.
Just like on the bridge, our brain is searching for context. We look around and what do we see as the source of all this emotional arousal? The person in front of us, damn them.
Yet just like on the bridge, it’s not just them. Or maybe not them at all.
This post was originally published in 2011 and updated in 2017.