Love in the wild

A far-off spring fling shouldn’t be a full-fledged affair.

Bronwyn Miller

“You’ll never guess what happened. I’m in love.” So began the voicemail I received exactly two years ago from a friend who spent that semester in London. “He’s French,” she raved. “My soulmate.” Two weeks after meeting each other, they got matching tattoos of the latitude and longitude where they met.

Fast forward to present day. After a series of mishaps demonstrated sheer incompatibility, their relationship is long gone. She’s left with now-meaningless numbers permanently etched on her right arm and credit card debt from that last-minute flight she bought to Paris. Above all, she still questions: How did I fall for someone so wrong for me?

The downfall of their relationship could speak to the way in which it was developed, built perhaps not on genuine love but instead on misattribution of emotion. Those who have taken PSY 1001 might recall the “shaky bridge” experiment, notorious in social psychology. The concept was simple: Male participants were assigned to cross either a shaky suspension bridge, 200 feet above rocks and shallow rapids, or a different, stable bridge. The first situation ignites arousal in the body — an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and sensory alertness — while the second condition does not. All the men were approached by a woman who offered her name and phone number as they stepped off the bridge. The men in the scary bridge condition, sweaty-palmed with hearts racing, were significantly more likely than their control group counterparts to not only accept the phone number but to call the woman and ask her out on a date.

The study’s researchers explained their results with the concept of misattribution. In a state of fear-induced arousal from the bridge, the men misattributed this stimulation as sexual attraction when they encountered the female. When asked why they called the woman, the men in the study often remarked that they felt aroused by her but never made any sort of correlation to having just stepped off a petrifying bridge. Not only can our mind play tricks on us, but we do not recognize even the potential for misattribution.

A vacation or study abroad experience can evoke the same type of arousal experienced by the participants in the bridge experiment. With all the unusual and bucket-list-worthy experiences commonly had during a trip, it is not unlikely that we are often in a heightened state of arousal.

I’ll admit, when I met an alleged male model from Brazil while I was zip-lining in Ecuador, there was a moment in which I visualized what our future children would look like and thought about how cool it would be to have a bilingual family. But then I realized that the fact that we shared a kiss while soaring over the highest layer of the rainforest on a dangerously thin cable just might be clouding my judgment.

It’s often very easy to think you’re undeniably compatible with someone you meet while away from home. After all, you’re so similar! You both love traveling. You’re attracted to how carefree, adventurous and fearless the other person seems. But traveling often means putting responsibilities, conflicts and any baggage on hold; be aware of what you both will come back to after the trip ends.

College students around the country, single and ready to tingle, are embarking upon spring break. Maybe the romantic options really are better in (insert spring break destination here). But keeping in mind the role that the new and exciting environment might be playing in your attraction will have you more capable of differentiating between love and lust — and prevent you from being branded with “53 degrees north, 3 degrees west,” for the rest of your life.