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Misattribution of emotion? Is that because of who we are or the situation we are in?

Schacter and Singer's theory of emotions suggests that people's feelings are a result of their psychological state, and that of their appraisal of the situation in which the psychological changes occur can be influenced by their understanding of the environment around them. In other words, emotions are not just products of change in the physiological state but require inputs from our environment to allow for appropriate interpretation of what that emotion is and what it means. A person's physiological state can impact how they interpret ambiguous information in a social situation. The knowledge that they get from their environment can also influence how they interpret the cause of that emotional change and what those emotions might be.

In the classic experiment by Schachter and Singer (1962), participants were injected with epinephrine (adrenaline), which causes physiological arousal; but the way participants interpreted that emotional state was quite different available social cues. After the injection, the participant was joined by a confederate who either displayed a reaction consistent with joy or euphoria or a reaction consistent with anger. In each of these conditions, the participants were more likely to attribute their physiological arousal (they did not know about the epinephrine's potential effects) to the SAME state that they viewed in the confederate. So, in the euphoric condition, participants reported that they were excited. In contrast, in the angry condition, they were more likely to say that they believed their physiological reaction was because they were getting mad - (Cotton, 1981).

Schacter and Singer's experiment makes some exciting propositions. First, if an individual is experiencing high arousal, for example, stress or joy, and they don't know what is causing that arousal, they are more likely to blame the arousal on the situation in front of them and use environmental cues to explain why their physiological state has changed. Secondly, suppose the individual is aware of why they are experiencing high arousal, for example, when stress or joy is felt, and they know that is because of the psychological changes they are going through. In that case, they are more likely to appraise the situation in front of them differently. Again, if the cause of the physiological change is ambiguous or unclear, they are more likely to attribute that emotional state based on the surrounding cues found in the environment.

In the Dutton & Aron (1974) study of the scary bridge experiment, two groups of men were asked to walk across a bridge from one side to another. One group walked across a scary suspension bridge while the other group walked across a non-scary bridge. On both ends were attractive women who welcomed them and asked them a few questions, and the woman gave the men their contact information to keep in touch in case they had any questions. Men who walked across the scary bridge contacted these women after the experiment and kept in touch - while the men who walked across the non-scary bridge did not make an effort to contact these women. The reason for this strange behavior, according to the researchers, was that the men who walked across the scary bridge had misattributed their arousal caused by fear of crossing the bridge as a feeling of being attracted to the women.

Both Dutton and Aron's scary bridge experiment and the Schacter and Singer's experiment supported the idea of how our emotional arousal could be impacted by our appraisal of the situation, which can be biased by environmental cues.

However, both of these experiments were limited to a narrow range of participants. It may also not be considered medically ethical to induce individuals with adrenaline in a situation to unnaturally spike up their arousal as it was done in the Schacter experiment. Similarly, it may not be emotionally ethical to lead a group of highly aroused men due to fear to misattribute their arousal and lead them to be attracted to the women, especially if they try to contact those women later.

The Dutton and Aron experiment has been a classic example of the misattribution of emotion based on how individuals appraise the situation in front of them.

This experiment, along with the original Schacter and Singer's theory of emotions, proves that under a high arousal emotional condition, people are likely to, for better or worse, interpret and misattribute our feelings, and the cause of our emotions, based on our surroundings.


Cotton, J. (1981). A Review of Research on Schachter's Theory of Emotion and the Misattribution of Arousal. European Journal of Social Psychology, 11(4), 365-397. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2420110403

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