The Bachelor and Misattribution of Arousal

Ah, the Bachelor. A goldmine for pop-culture pundits and social psychologists equally, the Bachelor is always there (since 2002) to be laughed at, used for criticisms, or, you know, enjoyed. Specifically, for my purposes, the Bachelor is great because it is a nice public venue for social psychological processes, especially romantic ones. It’s logical, given that the show throws 25 women and 1 man into a 10-week speed-engagement process, where the Bachelor and all the contestants try to figure out if they can truly find love (or at least what they think is true love).

Interestingly enough, the producers seem to be clued in to/got lucky with social psychological processes, as shown by an early-season episode featuring a date with the Bachelor (Ben) and a contestant Emily. Before the date, the producers treat us to a nice little soundbite from Emily noting that her one big fear is heights. Naturally, when she gets to the date, she finds out that Ben and her get to climb up the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, which unfortunately for her, is 526 feet tall. Of course, this causes immediate consternation in Emily, as she harps on the fact that a little harness clipping them to the bridge is the only thing separating her from a long fall, and also to her chagrin, every so often while they go up the bridge, they have to unclip their harness from the the bridge to move it over an impassable piece of the railing. So is this torture, some sort of cruel game by the producers to exploit Emily’s fear on national television?

Worked out okay, huh?

Actually, if anything, it is a clever play by the producers to make sure Emily is attracted to Ben. The study by Dutton and Aron (1974) about the shaky bridge and attraction showed that people are prone to mislabeling their physiological arousal as attraction. In the study, those who crossed the high, scary bridge in Canada and met a female experimenter right afterwards were more likely to have sexual themes when taking the Thematic Apperception Test as well as more likely to display the behavior indicator of attraction of calling the experimenter after the field portion of the experiment completed. So, in the case we are looking at, playing on Emily’s fear of heights is a sure way to raise her arousal levels considerably, and with strong, handsome Ben to comfort  and accompany her on the climb, Emily is probably labeling those symptoms of arousal as symptoms of attraction to Ben. This is good for the producers, as it would be a pretty bad season if no one ended up being attracted to Ben.

I would question, though, what effect does this have in the long run? Sure, Emily might feel attracted to Ben because of this ploy, but does that attraction persist past this event? Does the attraction convert into love? Those questions remain unanswered, partly since much of the literature that resulted in the aftermath of the Dutton and Aron study focused on alternative explanations for the mechanism of this arousal-attraction link. In my opinion, this is still a pretty good tactic for getting the contestants to fall for the Bachelor, at least compared to normal, less intensely arousing dates, based of the idea that a foot in the door is better than no foot at all. In terms of long-term attraction, it might be better for the producers to find some sort of thing that will terrify both the Bachelor and his date, causing some sort of mutual attraction as a result.

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