Why is an ad showing a piece of cake more engaging when the fork is placed to the right of the cake? Enter the field of “embodied cognition” – the idea that without our conscious awareness, our bodily sensations help determine the decisions we make. For example, people who held a warm beverage were more likely than people who held a cold one to think that a stranger was friendly. (1) I should imagine this excludes alcoholic beverages such as beer where everyone in our proximity is a mate – here the colder the better.

So why the fork to the right of the cake? Most of us are right-handed, so in the majority of cases the fork to the right evokes a motor response in our brain where we interact with the object since our minds mentally simulate the experience. And repeated studies show that depicting a product that makes mental stimulation easier, results in a heightened purchase intention. (2)

Embodied cognition can be seen at work where research shows that participants nodding their heads up and down leads to increased persuasion of an editorial message. Also, People holding a pen between their teeth (stimulating the muscles used for smiling) evaluate funny cartoons to be funnier than when holding a pen between their lips (inhibiting the muscles used for smiling). (2)

Enter an interesting experiment conducted by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron as far back as 1974. (3) If you’ve never encountered the phenomenon of ‘misattribution of arousal’, I am delighted to let you in on it. The experiment was a simple one. Firstly two locations were chosen – the first was a very rickety swing bridge (called a fear arousing bridge) and the second was a more stable one that elicited no fear reaction.

A pretty young lady stood with a clipboard in the middle of the fear-arousing bridge and when a young man crossed the bridge she would ask if they would please fill out her short questionnaire. The same was done on the stable (non fear-arousing) bridge. After they had completed the task, the young lady thanked them and offered to explain the experiment in more detail when she had more time, giving them her phone number to call. What was actually being measured was whether the young men would call ‘to discuss it further’. Of those on the fear-arousing bridge, 50% called her, whereas only 13% on the more stable bridge called. The cause for the discrepancy was ‘misattribution of arousal’. Basically it means that people make a mistake in assuming what is causing them to feel aroused. Those on the fear-arousing bridge were more likely to attribute their heightened emotional state to the young lady and made the assumption that it was her that made them excited, as opposed to their body’s natural reaction to perceived danger.

Similarly, the Schachter-Singer theory states that emotion is based on two factors: firstly the degree of physiological arousal and secondly the cognitive label we give to it. (4) In other words – how it makes us feel and then how we explain it to ourselves. The men on the scary bridge were aroused because of the physical attributes of the bridge (it was very narrow and above a deep ravine), however they misattributed the arousal – they thought it was the woman.

So next time you’re on a hot date, try some bungee jumping, but make sure he/she is looking at you when you take the plunge.


  1. The Science of Sensory Marketing. Harvard Business Review, March 2015.
  2. Ryan S Elder, Aradhna Krishna. The “Visual Depiction Effect” in Advertising: Facilitating Embodied Mental Stimulation through Product Orientation. Journal of Consumer Research, August 2011. http://www.indiana.edu/~abcwest/pmwiki/CAFE/visual%20depiction%20effect.pdf
  3. Donald G Dutton, Arthur P Aron. Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1974, Vol 30, No. 4. http://gaius.fpce.uc.pt/niips/novoplano/ps1/documentos/dutton%26aron1974.pdf
  4. Two-factor theory of emotion http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-factor_theory_of_emotion


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