Be Still My Beating Heart

Psychology Of Love – Part 6

That we use a phrase like ‘falling in love’ suggests that it is something over which we have no control. Our hearts race, palms sweat, we breathe faster and get butterflies in our stomach – it must be love. But is it? Or, is it possible that we can mistake these feelings for love when they are actually due to something else?

Researchers have found that people are more susceptible to become romantically and sexually attracted to complete strangers if they are in an emotionally ‘ready’ state. In a variety of studies, in which emotions such as fear have been induced, participants have reported increased romantic interest and sexual feelings.

In one such experiment, men aged 18 to 35 were approached by a female researcher after they had crossed two different types of bridges. One bridge was an unstable suspension bridge 230 feet above a canyon, which was only about 3 feet wide and swayed in the breeze. The other bridge was only 10 feet above a shallow river and it was solid, wide and had handrails. As each man crossed their respective bridges the researcher, an attractive women, asked them to invent a short story to help her with her research. After the interview the researcher offered them her telephone number so that they could contact her if they had any questions. This experiment found that men who crossed the suspension bridge not only produced more sexual images in their stories but they were also four times more likely to telephone the researcher than those who crossed the solid bridge. This was explained as mistaking the fear response to crossing the rickety bridge (heart racing, sweaty palms and rapid breathing) for feelings of being ‘in love’ or at least sexually attracted to the researcher.

However, real fear isn’t necessary, imagined fear has been shown to produce the same reactions. In the Painful Shock Experiment researchers wanted to know if the threat of pain could produce sexual attraction. They recruited two groups of people and asked them to complete a questionnaire, which included a question on how attractive they found the experimenter. One group was informed “We will begin the experiment in a moment” while the other was told “We will begin the painful shock experiment in a moment”. Intuitively, unless they were masochists, the group that were given the painful shock instruction should be less likely to be attracted to an experimenter that was going to cause them pain. But this wasn’t the case. The people that got the painful shock instruction were more likely to find the experimenter attractive. Why? Thinking about the painful shock prompted a physical fear response and their rapid heart beats, sweaty palms and shallow breathing increased their ratings of the attractiveness of the researcher.

But it isn’t only fear that can make us think that one person is more attractive than another. A simple rhythmic beat can be enough for us to ‘fall in love’. In the Playboy Experiment male subjects were asked to look at slides containing centerfolds from Playboy magazine and asked how attracted they are to the women in the photographs. They were wearing headphones through which they could hear their own heartbeat. But there was a twist. They were not listening to their own heartbeat but a recording of a heartbeat, the speed of which was being controlled by the experimenter. As the photographs appeared the experimenter would speed up the heart beat recording for just one of the centerfolds. It didn’t matter which photograph was on the screen, the woman rated as most attractive was the one that they were looking at while hearing a rapid heart beat. So, they were fooled into finding one particular woman more attractive than another simply by the beat of a heart.

Since the majority of people don’t meet their partners on a suspension bridge, or in a dentists waiting room or have the opportunity to regulate perceptions of heart beats it might be difficult to know how this research can help us understand ‘love’. But, physical arousal levels can be influenced by everyday situations. For example, people who run on a treadmill have been more likely, than people who just sit around, to find an experimenter more attractive. Watching scary movies, roller coaster rides, strong coffee, alcohol, recreational drugs and listening to music can all produce the ‘symptoms’ of love. In fact almost anything that increases arousal levels can make us all fools for love.

While much of the research on arousal and attraction has been conducted using younger participants, older daters are just as likely to be fooled by their ‘urges’ – just because there is snow on the mountain doesn’t mean there is no fire down below. Given that we often meet partners in social settings, in which music and alcohol flow freely, it is possible that ‘falling in love’ is no more than a physical reaction to the moonlight, music and copious amounts of booze. Perhaps this is why some of the princes or princesses we take home from our nights on the town turn into frogs before morning.

In Blog 7: Love Thy Neighbour?

Dr. Lori Boul gained her PhD at the University of Sheffield in the UK and the research for her thesis, into ‘male menopause’, attracted worldwide media attention. Dr Lori is probably one of the most outspoken speakers on the topic of human sexuality and in writing her book DIY Sex and Relationship Therapy has dared to challenge the need for face-to-face therapy. According to Dr Lori, “Good therapists can be hard to find and for many people a good spoonful of common sense is all that is needed”.

Whether speaking to the general public or professionals, Dr Lori’s expertise, sensitivity and humour inspire new ways of thinking about relationships, sex and psychology. She has presented talks at national and international conferences, provides training courses and executive mentoring, and is featured as a regular guest speaker with Cunard.