By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University
Why do people suddenly fall in love with someone who might appear unattractive the next day? The answer lies in the excitation-transfer effect. People can mistakenly think all their positive feeling and excitement is attributed to a specific person, while that person might have only a trivial role. So, why do people think like that?
In simple terms, the excitation-transfer effect misattributes one person’s physiological arousal to another person. Consequently, they feel that they have fallen in love with the other person when they have not. What makes a person fall in love at all?
Why Do We Fall in Love?
There are some chemicals involved in falling in love: dopamine, PEA, oxytocin, and serotonin. Some people can make a person release these chemicals in a way that passionate love is formed. Why only some people? The answer is not clear yet, but scientists have a few theories.
First, love may be rooted in people’s earliest experiences with closeness and intimacy when they were infants. The stimuli associated with comfort and closeness as an infant get imprinted into people’s brains. Encountering the same stimuli can make an adult feel positive toward some people and even fall in love.
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Emotional and Physiological Arousal
Emotional and physiological arousal lead to passionate love and falling in love. Normally, it is the person who arouses the emotions, but sometimes the arousal can be mistakenly attributed to a person. Of course, the arousal cannot make a person fall in love with just anyone, but if they like the person a bit, it can mislead them.
This is studied and proved by researchers in studies called “excitation transfer”.
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As the name suggests, excitation from one thing can be transferred to another thing and make the excited person think that all the excitation comes from one source. The source of excitation can be anything, from watching a horror movie to doing physical activities such as sports.
The effect can work in situations where a person is disliked as well. If one dislikes a person in an unfavorable environment, they will misattribute all the negative feelings to the person and like them even less.
In one study on men, the participants were divided into two groups. One ran two minutes on a treadmill, and the other ran only 15 seconds. Naturally, the first group had higher arousal. Both were then shown a videotape of a woman that they thought they would meet later.
The videotape had two versions: one making the woman look attractive and one unattractive. Next, the participants had to rate how much they expected that they would like her when they finally met. Of course, both groups liked the attractive version more, but that is not the point.
Those with higher arousal liked the attractive version more and the unattractive version less than the other group. The excitation-transfer effect can occur after any situation that leads to arousal. Adrenaline can make the person more affectionate and cause some shocking experiences.
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The Morning-After Phenomenon
One interesting outcome of the excitation-transfer effect is the morning-after phenomenon: a person meets someone in a good pub, with good music, good drinks, good company, dancing, and the excitement and anxiety associated with meeting new people. They immediately decide they are very much attracted to the person and they finally spend the night together.
When they wake up in the morning, without the environment and its different causes of arousal, they might even wonder how they could find this person attractive.
Other Cases of Excitation-Transfer Effect
Another example of the excitation-transfer effect is when couples have an intense fight and immediately after they begin emotionally and passionately making up. How is that possible? The arousal from fighting and shouting remains a while after they end the fight, and they no longer attribute it to anger, but to their attraction to the other person.
So, is love a real thing or a Western invention?
Anthropologists used to attribute romantic love exclusively to Western cultures. They were very wrong. A study on 166 cultures showed that 147 of them reported falling in passionate love. About the other 19 cultures, it was not clear if the notion did not exist or if the researchers failed to uncover it. The results were enough to conclude that romantic love is in human nature.
Of course, expressing it may differ vastly from culture to culture, but it still exists. Its role in marriage also varies in different cultures. Another study showed that only five percent of Americans and the Japanese would marry a suitable person that they have no romantic love for. However, 50% of Indians and Pakistanis would do that since arranged marriages are still common in these cultures.
All being said, scientists still have no clear and definite explanation for how love occurs, but they do have some basics and related phenomena covered.
Common Questions about Excitation-Transfer Effect
The excitation-transfer effect explains how the excitement caused by the environment and different things can be wrongly attributed to a person whom someone likes.
A common example of the excitation-transfer effect is when a person meets someone in a bar or club and goes home with them, but the next morning, when the excitement caused by the environment is gone, they cannot believe how they liked that person enough to sleep with them.
The excitation-transfer effect is the result of misattributing excitement to a person, not its real cause, and misinterpreting it to falling in love or liking someone very much. When it happens, people mistakenly think they like someone, when they really do not.
Sometimes the excitation-transfer effect can mislead people into thinking that they are in love. However, in cases without the effect, specific stimuli need to be aroused for a person to fall in love.