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Thoughts and bodies in emotion

Emotions are both physiological and cognitive, as this famous experiment involving an attractive woman and a scary bridge demonstrates.
In 1974, two psychologists, Dutton and Aron, did a very clever experiment that said some very interesting things about the way that emotions work. They set up their experiment not in a laboratory but in Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, which is a popular tourist attraction in Vancouver, Canada. There’s two bridges in this park. One is a sturdy, paved bridge, the kind that you walk over without even thinking about it. The other is a suspension bridge that’s high off the ground, and it wobbles, a lot. And in the middle of each of these two bridges, an attractive woman approached men as they were walking past on the bridge and asked them to do a quick survey.
Lots of men did the survey and then took an information sheet about the experiment that had a phone number to call if you wanted further information. However, the experimenters actually weren’t really interested in the survey and what men said on the survey. What they were really interested in was how many men would call that number to try and ask out the attractive woman. And what they discovered was really fascinating. Men were much more likely to call that number if they’d been asked to do the survey on the scary, wobbly bridge rather than the sturdy, paved bridge. And what these results, and other experiments of this nature, show is that people can misinterpret the physical symptoms of emotions.
For example, if you’re in Vancouver in 1974 and your heart races, it might be because you’re in the middle of a scary, wobbly bridge. Or, it might be because you’ve just seen an attractive woman. Chances are that you prefer to think it was because of the attractive woman. No one wants to think of themselves as being scared of a silly bridge. And this says something important about emotion. Emotion is half about the physiological reactions you have and half about what you think about how you interpret them. And in the following steps we’ll further explore what this means for the way that emotion works and the way that music exploits this.
Emotions are both physiological and cognitive, as this famous experiment involving an attractive woman and a scary bridge demonstrates.

For this step of the course, we’ve put together a video explaining a famous experiment conducted by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron in 1974. This experiment is probably in every psychology textbook, near the start of a chapter titled ‘Emotion’, because it’s an exceptionally vivid illustration of a principle that’s been long known in psychology.

What they did demonstrate was the dual nature of emotion: emotion involves both

  • Physiological responses – this means that your body has physically changed after something happened. Examples might include your heart beating faster, your palms getting sweaty, your breathing getting shallower, your hands shaking, your whole body jumping in the air.

  • Cognitive responses – the word ‘cognitive’ in psychology means, basically, stuff related to thinking and mental processes – how we analyse, interpret, and store information (some of which is deliberate and conscious, and some of which is less conscious and more instinctive).

After all, without the physiological response, we don’t feel anything, but without the cognitive response we don’t quite know what we’re feeling.

And because we’re starting to use words with specific meanings in psychology, a reminder that we have a glossary, at step 1.5, where we have listed what the terms we are using mean.

Your task

Use the comments link below to share your thoughts on the following:

  • Can you think of a time when you might have been tricked by your emotions?
  • If so, what was the physiological reaction you had, and what was the cognitive response you had?
  • If you were tricked, why was the cognitive response inappropriate?


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

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