Interesting and strange
“Misattribution of arousal falls under the self-perception theory. This theory goes back as far as William James, one of the founders of psychology. It posits your attitudes are shaped by observing your own behavior and trying to make sense of it. For instance, James would say if you saw a cricket on your arm and then flailed about rubbing your body up and down while screaming incoherently, you would later assume you had experienced fear and might then believe you were afraid of crickets. Self-perception theory says you look back on a situation like this as if in an audience trying to understand your own motivations. Sometimes, you jump to conclusions without all the facts. As with many theories, there is much research left to be done and plenty of debate, but in many ways James was right. You often do act as observer of your actions, a witness to your thoughts, and you form beliefs about your self based on those observations. Psychologist Fritz Strack devised a simple experiment in 1988 in which he had subjects hold a pen straight out between their incisors and bare their teeth as they read cartoon strips. The subjects tended to find the cartoons funnier than when they held the pen between their lips instead. Between the teeth, some of the muscles used for smiling were contracted, and between the lips they contracted some of the muscles used for frowning. He concluded the subjects felt themselves smiling and decided somewhere deep in their minds they must be enjoying the comics. When they felt themselves frowning, they assumed they thought the comics were dull. In a similar experiment in 1980 by Gary Wells and Richard Petty at the University of Alberta subjects were asked to test out headphones by either nodding or shaking their heads while listening to a pundit delivering an editorial. Sure enough, when questioned later the nodders tended to agree with the opinion of the speaker more than the shakers. In 2003, Jens Förster at International University Bremen asked volunteers to rate food items as they moved across a large screen. Sometimes the food names moved up and down, and sometimes side to side, thus producing unconscious nodding or head shaking. As in the pundit study, people tended to say they preferred the foods which made them nod unless they were gross. In Förster’s and other similar studies, positive and negative opinions became stronger, but if a person hated broccoli, for example, no amount of head nodding would change their mind.
Arousal can fill up the spaces in your brain when you least expect it. It could be a rousing movie trailer or a plea for mercy from a distant person reaching out over YouTube. Like a coterie of prairie dogs standing alert as if living periscopes, your ancestors were built to pay attention when it mattered, but with cognition comes pattern recognition and all the silly ways you misinterpret your inputs. The source of your emotional states is often difficult or impossible to detect. The time to pay attention can pass, or the details become lodged in a place underneath consciousness. In those instances you feel, but you know not why. When you find yourself in this situation you tend to lock onto a target, especially if there is another person who fits with the narrative you are about to spin. It feels good to assume you’ve discovered what is “