How a 1970s Psychology Study Explains The Bachelorette

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Photo: Michael LeGrand/ABC

It is baked into the DNA of the Bachelorette/Bachelor franchise that at least once a season, at least two people need to jump off of things. This time around, it was a cliff of the coast of Uruguay; in seasons past, there have been bungee-jumping dates, rappelling dates, hold-hands-and-jump-off-a-boat-into-the-ocean dates, ideally with said jumping occurring as a voice-over informs us that they’re — wait for it — falling in love. Or taking a leap, or jumping into the relationship, or something. You get the idea. The producers aren’t big on subtlety, but they do love a good metaphor.

They also know exactly what they’re doing. All that jumping isn’t just an excuse for some visually cool-looking shots (say what you want about this show, but man, do they travel to some stunning locations). It’s also helping the very premise of the series — namely, that two people can convince themselves they’re ready to marry in roughly the same amount of time it takes an open jar of mayonnaise to expire. In 1974, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron published a study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology that seems tailor-made for the Bachelorette. The two found that arousing situations (arousing like scary, not arousing like sexual) are also ideal conditions for enhancing feelings of attraction.

The gist of the study was this: A good-looking female researcher hung out on two different bridges — a high, shaky suspension bridge and a solid bridge lower to the ground — and asked male passersby at both locations to fill out a questionnaire and write a short story. Each time, she also gave out her phone number in case the men wanted to talk more about the experiment (which, maybe on purpose, sounds like a pretty flimsy excuse). Those who had been on the shakier, more nerve-wracking bridge called in greater numbers and wrote more sexual stories in their questionnaires — evidence, the study authors argued, for “an emotion-sexual attraction link.”

As psychologist Justin Lehmiller recently noted in the blog Sex and Psychology, the pattern has since played out in a bunch of other studies. “What psychologists think is going on is that people are misattributing their physiological arousal to the person instead of to the situation,” he wrote. It’s easy, in other words, to confuse fear, anxiety, or other heart-pounding emotions with the notion that you’re just heart-poundingly into the person next to you — which, if you’re a reality-TV producer trying to orchestrate feelings in just ten short weeks, is exactly what you want to hear. Bring on the skydiving dates.