When she pledged not to date anyone from her climbing gym, Dawn LeBlond had a lot going against her. That’s because fear, sweat, teamwork and trust — climbing’s foundational elements — also happen to be potent aphrodisiacs.
In one classic study from 1974, Stony Brook University psychologist Arthur Aron had an attractive female grad student chat up men as they crossed one of two bridges. One of the bridges was a shaky swing bridge, 250 feet high. The other bridge was low, solid and stable.
The men who chatted up the gal on the scary bridge ended up being more than two times as likely to call her later. The conclusion? Fear can be mistaken for the first flurries of attraction.
“If you’re a little tense or scared and it’s not obvious why from the circumstances, and you’re around someone who is reasonably attractive, you are likely to misinterpret that and think, ‘Oh I’m attracted to them,’” Aron said.
Aron and other researchers went on to discover a variety of ways to prime people for love — and they all involve getting your heart rate up. Exercise works, and so does the possibility of getting an electric shock, the study showed. Climbing’s combination of physical exertion and fear might make for an especially strong love potion.
The intimacy and trust involved in climbing also primes people for romance, said John Gottman, a marriage researcher and psychology professor at the University of Washington.
“While climbing, you’re depending on one another for your life,” Gottman said. “You’re building trust in a very physical way.’”
In a more typical dating environment, couples build trust by sharing their darkest secrets and deepest desires. Climbing, however, offers the unusual opportunity to glimpse a person’s true self more directly. If, for example, your climbing partner has a total breakdown on the mountainside, and you still love and respect them afterward, then you’re proving that your affection is sturdy and stable. People tend to find this very sexy, Gottman said.
Another potential turn-on in climbing gyms is, perhaps surprisingly, their smell. Since the ‘90s, there’s been a raft of research showing that people are persnickety about a potential partner’s smell. More recently, researchers have zeroed in on the specific chemicals involved. One 2007 study, for instance, found that sniffing androstadienone, a compound found in male sweat, aroused heterosexual women on both the mental and physiological level. The women reported being turned on, and their elevated hormones and heart rates concurred.
But while climbing may be an excellent way to find a mate, you’ll need other activities to keep that relationship going. That’s because the heart-rate trick stops working in established relationships, Aron said. “You expect to be turned on by your partner,” he said. Plus, engaging in novel activities extends the heady sense of self expansion that fuels passionate feelings at the beginning of a relationship, Gottman said. He recommends taking a cooking class or learning a new language together.
“The name of the game is novelty,” he said. “You’re not going to get that if you just keep climbing the same old mountains.”