When you feel something, you may think you know why but you’re probably wrong. According to author David McRaney, of the clever blog You Are Not So Smart, we have a tendency to misinterpret intense emotions to fit a narrative we prefer without ever questioning it. This may sound bad, but in some cases it can actually help you build better relationships with others.How does this happen? It turns out that when you’re aroused – in the general sense – you become very attentive and easily excitable. This isn’t always a good feeling, as it may come from fear (for example), but regardless of the source it gets your blood pumping. The feeling sticks around even after its inception and can influence your actions later on. When there’s a person around, you’ll generally project this arousal onto them. You’ll assume you’re attracted to this person (assuming their of the gender you like), but in reality your emotions were heightened for another reason. Strangely, you go on ignoring this because you’ve found a version of the facts you prefer – even if they’re wrong. It’s why horror movies can be great for dates.
This seems to be a bad thing but it doesn’t always have to be. McRaney explains that it can be a useful way in building strong relationships:
In 2008, psychologist James Graham at the University of North Carolina conducted a study to see what sort of activities kept partners bonded. He had 20 couples who lived together carry around digital devices while conducting their normal daily activities. Whenever the device went off, they had to use it to text back to the researchers and tell them what they were up to. They then answered a few questions about their mood and how they felt toward their partners. After over a thousand of these buzz-report-introspect-text moments, he looked over the data and found couples who routinely performed difficult tasks together as partners were also more likely to like each other. Over the course of his experiments, he found partners tended to feel closer, more attracted to and more in love with each other when their skills were routinely challenged. He reasoned the buzz you get when you break through a frustrating trial and succeed, what Graham called flow, was directly tied to bonding.
It’s not just about time spent, but rather overcoming difficult tasks together. You have to keep doing it, too. If a relationship is feeling stale, or you want a good way to get to know someone better, try taking on something challenging. You might just trick yourself into a better situation.
For the full story, be sure to read McRaney’s excellent article over at You Are Not So Smart.
Misattribution of Arousal [You Are Not So Smart]