Misattribution of Arousal: More Evidence of Robin’s Psychology Training

As most Hogpro readers know, I am a psychology professor/ neuroscientist/ behavior analyst, and therefore love looking for psychological themes in fiction. Most of my commentary has involved depictions of mental illness, though the Hunger Games and  Divergent provided a mountain of other themes, from personality theory to fear conditioning to neuroscience. Naturally, I was delighted to learned that Robin Ellacott had planned to major in psychology, prior to dropping out of uni, and I take special note of any use of her psychology training on the job.

This segment of Lethal White, where Robin tries to sort out her feelings for Cormoran, really jumped out at me.

Wasn’t it possible, she asked herself, when she was cried out at last, that she was confusing gratitude and friendship with something deeper? That she had mistaken her love of detection for love of the man who had given her the job? She admired Strike, of course, and was immensely fond of him. They had passed through many intense experiences together, so that it was natural to feel close to him, but was that love?

Whether she consciously remembers her coursework or not, Robin is demonstrating knowledge of a well-known psychological phenomenon, misattribution of arousal. More after the jump.

The common-sense view of emotion is that feelings produce physiological arousal: you see a mad killer coming at you with a knife, you feel afraid and therefore your sympathetic nervous system activates the flight-or-fight response: your heart races, your breathing accelerates, etc. But psychologists have questioned that viewpoint. One popular alternative perspective is the Schachter two-factor model, originally tested in laboratory experiments by Schachter  and Singer in the 1960’s. According to this model, the physiological arousal comes first, the situation is cognitively appraised and then the appropriate emotion is felt. If your heart is racing and you perceive Donald Laing coming at you with a knife, you feel fear. If your heart is racing and you perceive the horse you bet on winning the race, you feel elation.

But what happens if a sneaky scientist, or some other circumstance, makes you attach the wrong label to your emotion? In 1974, scientists Dutton and Aron did a classic experiment to test the two-factor theory in a real-world setting. An attractive female student was assigned to approach young men after they crossed a wobbly, scary suspension bridge in a park in British Columbia. The men were asked to participate in a psychology study about the effects of beautiful scenery on creativity. Those who agreed were given a brief questionnaire, and asked to write a brief story about a picture they were shown. Importantly, the experimenter gave the men her phone number, and invited them to call her if they had any questions about the research project. A control group of men were approached by the same woman with the same instructions, but after crossing a sturdy metal bridge.

Two major results came from the study.  First, the men from the shaky bridge included more sexual content in their descriptions of the picture than the men from the sturdy bridge. Second, they were more likely to call the woman later, and many were more interested in asking the woman on a date than hearing about her research. The conclusion was that the bridge got the mens’ sympathetic nervous systems revved up, but, when they perceived an attractive woman approaching and directing attention to them, they mislabeled the emotion their physiological arousal was producing as sexual attraction or romantic interest. On the sturdy bridge, the arousal wasn’t present, so the attraction was not as strong. There were also no differences between the effects of the two bridges when the approaching experimenter was male.

Let’s return to Robin. She had all but given up her dream of forensic work and resigned herself to both an unexciting career in office work, and a nice quiet life with the safe but terminally dull and utterly self-centered accountant, Matthew.

Then a temping agency had sent her by mistake to a private detective. She should have been there a week, but she had never left. It had felt like a miracle. Somehow, by luck, then through talent and tenacity, she had made herself valuable to the struggling Strike and ended up almost exactly where she had fantasized being.

Once she is working with Strike, three things come into play. First, she is doing her dream job. Second, she gets into multiple dangerous or frightening situations, starting with her near-plunge down the stairs, then either witnessing or being the victim of an attack at least once per book, not to mention the viewing of cadaver pictures and interrogations by the Met. Third, throughout it all, an older, attractive (in his own way) man is paying attention to her, and consistently communicating to her that she and her work are valuable. That isn’t what she’s getting at home from the Flobberworm.

So, Strike is associated with both a pleasant stimulus (the job she loves) and a stress-arousing one (danger).  Robin appears to know enough about both Pavlovian conditioning and misattribution of arousal to recognize that the circumstances were ripe for kindling feelings of attraction; the job is the shaky bridge and Cormoran is the research assistant, waiting to ask her opinion. She is quite right to question what those feelings mean, and whether this “crush,” as she terms it, is a good reason to leave her marriage. It’s too bad she left her degree program; I’m willing to bet she was an A student.

Thankfully, the Flobberworm gives her quite a few more good reasons to dump him, ending with him shagging Sarah Shadlock in Robin’s own bedroom. Robin is now motivated to leave him for reasons entirely unconnected to her boss. The question remains, what will happen once the divorce papers are signed? Will she reconsider the authenticity of her feelings? Perhaps she ought to consider the words of Albus Dumbledore:  Just because it is all happening in her head (or her brain, with a little help from her sympathetic nervous system) does not mean it is not real.


  1. Very very interesting! What would be the psychology behind Matt wanting so badly to stay with Robin after Robin behaves so badly (even if justifiably) at their wedding? Wouldn’t Matt be very humiliated by that?

  2. Louise Freeman says

    That is a great question— and one that I’d have to speculate more about. Overall I would say Robin is a boost to Matthew’s ego: she’s gorgeous, smart and the type of person everyone likes. She is also conveniently and through no fault of her own, less educated than he and therefore someone he can feel superior over. He’s also all about appearances and, as humiliating as Robin’s behavior must have been, even more humiliating would be for Robin to leave him for Strike. Matthew is clearly proud of his looks, his athleticism and his professional success. To have his woman run off with Strike: a self-described “fat, one-legged bloke with pube hair and a broken nose” would be a huge blow to his ego.

  3. That makes sense. I thought that Matthew being jealous of Robin working for Strike was more because that Strike is a rough person and it’s a rough job. Also, and probably more importantly, that it doesn’t have the income or image that Matthew sees for himself and Robin. But Matthew could and should be jealous of Strike as a rival.

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