Misattribution of Arousal

Misattribution of Arousal Definition

Misattribution of ArousalMisattribution of arousal refers to the idea that physiological arousal can be perceived to stem from a source that is not actually the cause of the arousal, which may have implications for the emotions one experiences. For example, if a professor was unknowingly served a caffeinated latte at her coffee shop one morning instead of the decaf she ordered, and then during her midmorning lecture noticed her heart racing and her hands visibly shaking, she may assess the situation and determine the class full of staring students to be the cause of her arousal (rather than the caffeine buzz actually responsible for the symptoms). Consequently, the professor may feel unusually nervous during her lecture.

Misattribution of Arousal Background

The concept of misattribution of arousal is based on Stanley Schachter’s two-factor theory of emotion. Although most people probably think they just spontaneously know how they feel, experiencing an emotion is a little more complicated according to the two-factor theory. The theory suggests that two components are necessary to experience an emotion: physiological arousal and a label for it. Schachter suggested that physiological states are ambiguous, so one looks to the situation to figure out how one feels. So if your heart is pounding and you have just swerved out of the way of an oncoming car, you will attribute the pounding heart to the accident you almost had, and therefore will label your emotion “fear.” But if your near collision is with a classmate upon whom you have recently developed a crush, you would probably interpret your pounding heart quite differently. You may think, “This must be love that I am feeling.” Based on the two-factor theory, emotional experience is malleable because the emotion experienced depends partly on one’s interpretation of the events that caused the physiological arousal.

Classic Research on Misattribution of Arousal

Schachter and his colleague Jerome Singer tested the misattribution of arousal hypothesis in a classic experiment conducted in 1962. They told participants that they were testing the effects of a vitamin on people’s vision. In reality, however, some participants were injected with epinephrine (a drug that causes arousal, such as increased heart rate and shakiness). Of these participants, some were warned that the drug causes arousal and others were not. Schachter and Singer predicted that participants who were not informed of the drug’s effects would look to the situation to try to figure out what they were feeling. Therefore, participants unknowingly given the arousal-causing drug were expected to display emotions more consistent with situational cues compared with participants not given the drug and participants accurately informed about the drug’s effects. The results of the experiment supported this hypothesis. Compared with participants in the other two conditions, participants who had received the drug with no information about its effects were more likely to report feeling angry when they were left waiting in a room with a confederate (a person who appeared to be another participant but was actually part of the experiment) who acted angry about the questionnaire that he and the real participant had been asked to complete. Likewise, when the confederate acted euphoric, participants in this condition were also more likely to feel happy. With no information about the actual source of their arousal, these participants looked to the context (their fellow participants) to acquire information about what they were actually feeling. In contrast, participants told about the drug’s effects had an accurate explanation for their arousal and therefore did not misattribute it, and participants not given the drug did not have any arousal to attribute at all. These findings parallel the example of the professor who did not know that caffeine was responsible for her jitters and therefore felt nervous instead of buzzed. In each case, attributing one’s arousal to an erroneous source altered one’s emotional experience.

In a classic experiment conducted by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron in 1974, the misattribution of arousal effect was shown to even affect feelings of attraction. In this experiment, an attractive female experimenter approached men as they crossed either a high, rickety suspension bridge or a low, safe bridge at a popular tourist site in Vancouver, Canada. Whenever an unaccompanied male began to walk across either bridge, he was approached by a female researcher who asked him to complete a questionnaire. Upon completion, the researcher wrote her phone number on a corner of the page and said that he should feel free to call her if he wanted information about the study results. The researchers found that more men called the woman after crossing the rickety bridge compared with the stable bridge. The explanation for this finding is that men in this condition were presumably breathing a bit more rapidly and had their hearts beating a bit faster than usual as a result of crossing the scary bridge, and when these effects occurred in the presence of an attractive woman, they misattributed this arousal to feelings of attraction.

Implications of Misattribution of Arousal

The misattribution paradigm has been used as a tool by social psychologists to assess whether arousal accompanies psychological phenomena (e.g., cognitive dissonance). For students of social psychology, the message is that, consistent with many findings in social psychology, aspects of the situation can have a profound influence on individuals—in this case, on the emotions an individual experiences. Consequently, you may want to take your date to a scary movie and hope that your date will interpret his or her sweaty palms as attraction to you, but be careful, because in this context, arousal caused by actual feelings of attraction may also be attributed to fear in response to the scary film.


  1. Sinclair, R. C., Hoffman, C., Mark, M. M., Martin, L. L., & Pickering, T. L. (1994). Construct accessibility and the misattribution of arousal: Schachter and Singer revisited. Psychological Science, 5, 15-19.
  2. Zanna, M. P., & Cooper, J. (1974). Dissonance and the pill: An attribution approach to studying the arousal properties of dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 703-709.
  3. Zillmann, D. (1983). Transfer of excitation in emotional behavior. In J. T. Cacioppo & R. E. Petty (Eds.), Social psychophysiology: A sourcebook. New York: Guilford Press.