The Psychology of Attraction: Fear

Happy Labor Day! If you haven't looked at the comments in my critique styles post, take a look. People have left quite a few amusing comments. Also, I forgot to mention  that the five profiles I posted are actually caricatures of the five members of my critique group. Can you guess which one is me?

I've been reading some articles on the psychology of attraction and thought it'd be interesting to write about ways to attract the opposite sex. As writers, our interest in this is of course strictly academic -- we want to write more realistic romances (right? :-P).

Imagine that you're a young man crossing a rickety suspension bridge. It's not exactly sturdy. It sways and twists in the wind, and there's only a low wire handrail to protect you from the rocks 230 feet below. As you cross, you're approached by an attractive young psychology student. She asks you to fill out a survey and write a short story. After you finish, she tells you that she'd be happy to talk further about the experiment, and then she hands you her phone number.

Got that? Now a slightly different scenario.

You're still young man, but now you're crossing a different bridge. It's built of solid wood and stands 10 feet above a small creek. Again, a pretty young psychology student asked you to fill out a survey. Again, she has you write a story and slips you her phone number.

 It turns out that the young men crossing the two different bridges behaved differently in two crucial ways. First, men crossing the rickety suspension bridge were more likely to call up the female interviewer afterwards. Second, the scary bridge group also included more sexual imagery in their stories. It appears that men who crossed the scary bridge were more attracted to the female interviewer.*

Why might this be? Well, what happens when you cross a scary bridge? Your heartbeat goes up. Your palms get sweaty. You start breathing quicker.

And what happens when you really attracted to someone? Hmm, your heartbeat goes up. Your palms get sweaty…

So you’re crossing the bridge, your brain is getting all these fear messages from your body, and in the meantime, your brain also notices that you’re talking to a sexy psychologist (I love that phrase). And your brain thinks, “Wow, my heart is speeding up, my palms are sweaty, I must really be attracted to this girl!”**

The takeaway message: fear will sometimes lead to an illusion of romantic attraction. And we actually see this a lot in books and movies. Think about pretty much every action movie that transitions from scary chase/fight/brush with death scene to a love scene.

So, dear readers, can you think of any examples of this in recent books you've read? Or in your own writing? 

* On a side note, the psychologists also did the same experiment with the male interviewer. In that variation, there was no difference in how each group behaved.

** Another interesting aside. It seems like the presence of a hot young thing will actually trick your brain into thinking that you're less scared than you actually are. In a similar experiment using the threat of electric shock instead of a scary bridge, men reported being less scared when the pretty girl was around, presumably because their brains misinterpreted their bodies fear reactions as attraction for the girl.

Hope you enjoyed the post! To receive updates from this blog, please use the subscription options on the left sidebar.

  Dutton, D., & Aron, A. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30 (4), 510-517 DOI: 10.1037/h0037031


  1. Very interesting experiment. It makes sense, I can see how that would work! Definitely something I'll have to apply to my writing. Thanks!

  2. I can only imagine the horrible ways this information could be missused. For the record, I don't think an active volcano is a bad place for a first date.

  3. So fear and lust poke the same areas of the brain and the guy can't tell the difference?

    I think the answer is very simple: in the presence of a sexy psychologist, most men would "man up" and act less scared than if they were alone or with other men. Just to impress her. That's the testosterone solution, eh? The adrenaline rush identifies a winner, and that's attractive to females. So danger leads to "sense of relief" sex in movies. That's my theory, anyway. (Or the producers just thought it was time for titillation.)

    My conundrum in fiction is always how to make the woman attracted to the man--or, at least, interested enough to stay with him until she becomes attracted to him. So far, I've gotten by with believable reasons (psychological connections, time/place convenience, common interests, etc.) for her to want to be with him (except as noted above)--but those only work in selected narrow situations.

    Does it work the same if the woman is crossing the bridge and the psychologist is a handsome hunk?

  4. As for the example "from our own writing...":

    In my novel A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, coming out in 2012, I push the male protagonist into an uncomfortable situation that forces him to "man up"--but in doing so he makes bad decisions. As an older guy with a much younger girlfriend, he feels threatened by the attention young guys give her, so he tries to assert his dominance over her, declaring all the "features" he possesses that the younger guys don't have (well-paid job, etc.)--which she does not find attractive at all.

    In another example, my novel YEAR OF THE TIGER (out later in 2012) mixes the danger of tiger hunting with lush jungle sex! The hunter's adrenaline/testosterone drug proves irresistible to the lady.

    Had enough? One more: In my "rite-of-passage" novel AFTER ILIUM (any day now, 2011), my just graduated protagonist matures quickly over the two weeks he is lost in Turkey, fighting to return to his lover, the woman who he learns later betrayed him. He faces a lot of fear but "mans up" to impress her (before they are separated) and again to take the leadership role over two wayward military guys also trying to get away from danger.

    Sorry, this is way too long. I'll lay low for awhile. :-)

  5. Heather -- glad you found it useful!

    Jesse -- how about an amusement park w/ a giant rollercoaster? :-)

    Stephen -- I do think it would work vice versa for women w/ a hunky psychologist as well. And good thoughts about manning up -- I'll be writing more along those lines if I can find some good articles...

  6. Fascinating! I'm very interested in body language. I would have loved to observe these experiments. Thanks for a great post!

  7. I suppose that would be easier and more taditional than defending me from a rouge sheep. Though, if things worked out, the sheep would be a better story to tell the (eventual) grand kids. ;)

  8. Very interesting indeed! What about Twilight? Maybe the real reason Bella thinks she's so in love with Edward is actually her misinterpreting her fear response to him being a vampire. Hehehe....

  9. Michele - Mm, body language would be interesting to think about too.

    Jesse - Sheep are surprisingly useful creatures, I guess.

    Cally -- Yes! I had meant to mention Twilight but forgot. But there's definitely something about the mixture of fear and sexual attraction in Twilight...

  10. As a psychology student, I too was interested in this subject. For completely educational purposes, as you mentioned. ;)

    Exercise also gives the same effect: raised heart rate and endorphins.

    I guess as writers, if we want to create attraction, maybe it's better to have the characters doing something demanding (conflict) instead of chatting on the couch.

  11. I remember hearing about this in my Intro to Psych class in college. I always wanted to give it a shot in real life and see if guys will find me more attractive if we go on a roller coaster ride or something. :P

  12. This is similar to the "procreation" feeling many experience in near-death experiences: a sudden desire to have sex and procreate before death. (It is, after all, our biological imperative, right?) The studies you cite put a different spin on this - confusing fear of death for attraction - but I can't help but wonder if the two emotions are connected by the "procreate or die" scenario? Anyway, I always figured this was why, in movies and TV, two people who survived near-death experiences had sex immediately afterwards...