“Where is a good place to meet people?” I frequently get asked this question through my website and in the classes I teach. There isn’t a simple answer because there are obviously lots of places you could try, from your computer to a concert to the local bar. However, one place that a lot of people may not have thought about is the gym. I know you may not look or smell your best after a long workout, but believe it or not, there’s actually a sound scientific basis behind meeting up in a fitness club.
In the 1970s, psychologists made the fortuitous discovery that when a person is already physiologically aroused and meets someone new, the chances of an attraction developing between them increases significantly. The first study to demonstrate this involved heterosexual men walking across either a very high and unstable suspension bridge (an anxiety-inducing experience) or a bridge that was closer to the ground and wasn’t scary at all.1 In the middle of the bridge, each man was approached by an attractive female research assistant, who gave them a survey to fill out. Upon completing the questionnaire, she provided the man with her phone number and asked him to give her a call later that night if he had any questions about the study. It turned out that the men who walked across the shaky bridge were much more likely to call the woman than the men who walked across the stable bridge.
Several other studies have found similar effects (i.e., that arousal increases the odds of attraction). For instance, in another study, male participants were asked to run in place for either a few minutes or a few seconds.2 Afterward, they rated their degree of sexual and romantic attraction toward a female college student they observed in a video. Results indicated that the men who exercised longer were more attracted to the woman than the men who did not get their blood pumping as much.
Is this effect limited to guys? It does not seem to be. For example, in one study, female participants were either led to believe that their heart rate was elevated or not by providing false feedback from a heart rate monitor.3 The women were then told that a male interviewer had either given them a positive, negative, or neutral evaluation. The "aroused" women who received positive feedback were significantly more likely to return for a second interview than the "nonaroused" women who received the same feedback.
How do we explain these effects? What psychologists think is going on is that participants are misattributing their physiological arousal to the person instead of to the situation. That is, when there are competing explanations for the arousal (e.g., you aren’t sure if your heart is pounding because you just exercised or because you just met someone really hot), people seem to err on the side of attributing it to the new person.
The take home message from this is that if you approach someone who catches your eye at the gym, you might create a stronger first impression than usual because that person may attribute some of the arousal they're feeling from their workout to you. Of course, this is assuming you approach someone who has actually worked up a sweat instead of someone who is just hanging out on the stretching mat or posing in front of a mirror. If it's the latter, you're on your own!
1Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517. doi:10.1037/h0037031
2White, G. L., & Kight, T. D. (1984). Misattribution of arousal and attraction: Effects of salience of explanations for arousal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 20, 55-64. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(84)90012-X
3Walsh, N., Meister, L., & Kleinke, C. (1977). Interpersonal attraction and visual behavior as a function of perceived arousal and evaluation by an opposite sex person. The Journal of Social Psychology, 103, 65-74. doi: 10.1080/00224545.1977.9713297
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