Are You Nervous or Excited? It’s Up to You

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In the 1960s, two intrepid researchers took their subjects and injected them with adrenaline. They saw the typical physiological effects: an increased heart rate and an increase in tremors or “jitteriness” from the participants. All to be expected.

Next, the researchers put their subjects in a waiting room with another person. Unbeknownst to our participants, this other person was in on the experiment. He was an actor told to either act euphoric or increasingly angry. The actor started bouncing off the wall, playing with paper airplanes; or, in the other group, he became increasingly agitated at the paperwork he was filling out. The scientists were observing the theatrics through a one-way mirror. Hopped up on adrenaline, the subjects started to shift their behavior to be in line with the actor.

The adrenaline shots caused a physiological reaction, but the way in which their emotions went depended on context.

There was one other group that we haven’t discussed: the informed study participants. Upon receiving an adrenaline shot, this group was told what they had received and what they were likely to feel. When placed in the room with the angry or joyful actor, their behavior didn’t conform. They stayed who they were. They knew that their feelings and sensations of arousal came from the shot.

We often think that we are at the whims to our emotional arousal. We attribute our emotional responses to things outside of our control. You can see in our language: “Why do you make me so angry/sad/happy?… You scared me to death!” But what research has continually shown is that attribution matters. We interpret the sensations and feelings that we experience according to context.

So if we feel the effects of adrenaline on the starting line of a marathon, we attribute it to the nervousness of racing. If we are on the top of a bridge, we might attribute it to our fear of heights. But as the original adrenaline shot studies demonstrate, that attribution is flexible. We can nudge and sway how we interpret the sensations we experience.

— Steve

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