Misattribution Theory: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:03 Arousal and Emotion
  • 1:08 Misattribution Theory
  • 2:22 Research Findings
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Manuela Heberle

Manuela has master's degree in counseling and has taught psychology, social psychology, and a tests and measurements course.

This lesson provides insight into how we might incorrectly attribute an emotion to an event that is not the cause of the emotion at all. Examples of how arousal can be transferred from one event to another and an overview of a famous research experiment are also included.

Arousal and Emotion

Imagine that you are crossing the street when an approaching car almost hits you. The car swerves and just misses you. As you move away, you fall to the ground. Even though you aren't hurt, you are shaken up by the event. A passerby of the opposite sex helps you up, and as you look into the person's eyes, you feel aroused and attracted. You think that you may have finally met the one for you. In reality, you have just experienced misattribution of arousal.

To understand misattribution theory, it will be helpful to first become familiar with some key concepts related to emotion. Schachter and Singer's two-factor theory and the James-Lange theory propose that in order to experience emotion, one must be (a) aroused physically by a stimulus and (b) must label the experience of arousal. For example, you see an attractive individual walking down the hallway. Your heart pounds and you feel your face flush, upon which you label the physical experience as attraction.

Misattribution Theory

Misattribution theory adds an additional component to the stimulus-physical reaction-labeling theory. It proposes that arousal from one situation or event can affect our response to an entirely different event. Let's look at a few examples.

Example #1: Let's say you have an argument with your spouse just before leaving for work. When you arrive at work, your boss brings up something that she would like you to improve upon. You respond defensively and walk off the job. The arousal from the argument with your spouse changed the way that you might have otherwise reacted to the comment from your boss. Unless you are aware of the transfer of arousal, you would likely believe that your boss had treated you unfairly and that walking off the job was a reasonable response.

Example #2: The grades for your three college courses were just posted, and you've received an 'A' in every course for the semester. You're excited in response to the great news. The phone rings. It's a classmate that you really don't care for all that much. She asks if you'd like to get together, and although you wouldn't normally say yes, you agree and actually look forward to seeing her. You don't realize that the arousal from the good news about your grades has had an influence on your response to your classmate.

Research Findings

A number of research experiments have been done to bolster the misattribution theory. Dutton and Aron (1974) conducted one of the most famous experiments to date. They asked a group of men to cross a suspended bridge that swayed from side to side, and they asked another group of men to cross a sturdy, seemingly safe bridge.

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