Love in The Hunger Games: Why Katniss Falls for Peeta

By Guest Blogger | December 6, 2013 3:34 pm

By Wind Goodfriend


This article originally appeared on Dr. Goodfriend’s blog “A Psychologist at the Movies.”

I’m completely obsessed with The Hunger Games. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I have visited North Korea, a real country where millions of people really are dying of hunger. Maybe it’s the ironic meta-experience of watching the movie’s violence on a huge screen, when the movie’s point is that people shouldn’t watch violence on a huge screen. Regardless, The Hunger Games is chock-full of possible psychological analysis. Today I’m focusing on the fascinatingly weird emotions that spark between the The Hunger Games’ two main protagonists, Peeta and Katniss.

At home, Katniss has a boyfriend, a young man named Gale. He has rugged good looks, he’s brave, and they are perfectly matched in many ways. Both Katniss and Gale fight against the system in their own way (which is increasingly seen as the trilogy continues), and he is always successful at making Katniss feel comforted in a world with no comforts.

So why does Katniss later fall for Peeta? Peeta certainly has lovable qualities – he’s smart, nurturing, and can frost a cake like nobody’s business – but he and Katniss are not exactly a natural pair. Their personalities clash, their goals in life are different, and Katniss really isn’t interested in any kind of frivolous romance. Sure, in the first movie she is ambivalent about her feelings for Peeta, the kind-hearted boy with a sexy baby-faced look. But psychology would have predicted their blossoming feelings for each other due to their experiences together in the Hunger Games. It’s all because of a phenomenon called misattribution of arousal.

The Bridge Experiment

In a classic social psychology study conducted in 1974, a female experimenter waited around next to two bridges. One of the bridges was low and sturdy – very safe. The other bridge was “shaky” and high – you know, like one of those bridges in Indiana Jones, where you’re constantly afraid that the wooden boards and ropes will break and you’ll fall to your death. Whenever a man would cross one of these bridges, the woman would pretend to be interested in their answers to a series of questions. But the study was really all about whether the men would be physically attracted to the woman, which the researchers measured by recording how many of the male bridge-crossers called the woman later.

You can probably predict what happened in this study: More men called the woman from the group that had crossed the shaky, scary bridge. Why did that happen? The woman was the same in both conditions. The answer, according to Dutton and Aron (and tons of later researchers who have tested this phenomenon in other ways), is the misattribution of arousal. Here’s how it works…

When you’re in an environment that causes you to experience physiological arousal, your body goes crazy: your heartbeat increases, your blood pressure goes up, and you start sweating. Now, think about what happens to your body when you’re talking to a very attractive, sexy person. Your heartbeat increases, your blood pressure goes up, and you start sweating.

So the researchers argued that, because we experience these physiological symptoms of arousal in several different settings, sometimes our cognitive interpretation of the symptoms can be incorrect. You might be scared or anxious and mistakenly interpret the signs as being attracted to someone who happens to be around. For the men on the shaky bridge, they thought they were attracted to the female experimenter – so they called her; this happened significantly more times than the men on the safe bridge who were looking at the exact same woman.

Anxiety and Arousal

So, back to the main point: The Hunger Games. Peeta and Katniss are certainly in a scary environment. They’re surrounded by twenty-two other teenagers who are literally trying to kill them as soon as possible. They are both wounded; they could die at any moment. Adrenaline is pumping through them. According to misattribution of arousal, this physiological arousal could be mistaken for sexual arousal. Peeta and Katniss will fall in love.

Because I’ve read the books, I can tell you that we’ll see this pattern come back in the second movie as well (although I don’t want to give too much away, as I hate spoilers). Katniss is constantly around Peeta in times of physical stress. The Hunger Games is like a shaky bridge, made a zillion times worse. She almost couldn’t help becoming attracted to him, even if she wouldn’t have been under other circumstances.

I’m excited to see the next movie. My advice to readers, of course, is that if you’re going on a date and you want your date to like you, there’s always psychological manipulation in your romantic toolkit. Take your date to a scary environment, like a horror movie, haunted house, or a roller coaster. These environments will get your date’s body racing, and he or she might become more attracted to you! Those are probably better options than hiring a couple dozen teenagers to try to murder your date. ’Cause I feel like that could go wrong in a lot of different ways.


Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Buena Vista University, with research expertise on stereotypes and on romantic relationships.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: movies, psychology
  • ejtsang

    Interesting article! I probably should look this up in the original study on misattribution of arousal, but how do the researchers conclude that the men who crossed the sturdy bridge were not attracted to the woman just based on if they called her? Sure the level of stress for the men on the shaky bridge might be higher, but could it be that after crossing the shaky they had built up enough confidence to perform another potentially “risky” proposition such as calling the woman? Is it possible that this same type “confidence” boost may have been absent in the men crossing the sturdy bridge, resulting in them not calling the woman, despite potentially being attracted to her?

  • Jello

    Interesting… I also think the psychology of having been stuck with Peeta for two Hunger Games accounts for a lot of the appeal he offers Katniss – it’s a stability thing.

    But I’m sure that Gale is never explicitly described as Katniss’s boyfriend – it’s left unsaid in the movies, and just heavily implied that they are Just Friends (and in the book they are definitely nothing more than friends), at least until after Katniss returns from the first Hunger Games.

    • MyKitchenandI

      Yeah the book explains this better than the movies. She is attracted to Gale, they have that “chemistry” thing going … but she discovers that in some ways Gale’s love is more selfish, while Peeta’s was more selfless and thinking of her and her true feelings.

      Essentially, she ultimately chose to love the better man, even though she had a stronger physical attraction to Gale.

  • disqus_u1L7drLTzK

    I was pleasantly surprised with this article. Most of the pieces I’ve run into (in blogs or media sources of this equivalency) where psychology is concerned have been completely bogus. This one is a nice change of pace :)

    My only note is that I don’t recall the book ever officially labeling Gale as Katniss’s boyfriend, although I do know it was portrayed more heavily that way in the movie.

    But aside from that, we actually went over this (not specifically in Hunger Games context) in my psychology class over the last semester.

  • Nelson Kieff

    It seems apparent to me this analysis reinforces the continuing habit of the psychological and even neuro/physiopsych communities to approach ” love ” from the vantage of embodied emotion, arousal, physiological , sexual, erotic and stimulative feeling states rather than as other social, such as Eric Fromm’s Art of Loving, and relationship, David Ricoh’s How to Be an Adult in Relationships, psychologists might suggest : a set of behaviors in an enduring relationship built through deep knowing and communication with respect, appreciation, affection, attention allowance for differences. The unfortunate result of a cultural inattention to the distinction between falling in love and real love is too many failed relationships. Given the nature and extent of Dr. Goodfriend’s observations this isn’t likely to appear in this story.

  • dan becker

    Oh, this sounds as logical as can be! That’s all we need, manipulation.

  • Caroline

    Gale are not Katniss boyfriend they are Best Friends

    • Heather magana

      I think the same thing even though they kissed

  • paola

    Katniss never loved Gale in a romantic way. She always loved Peeta. She has never felt anything when she kissed Gale, with Peeta she feels “the hunger of his kisses” (she want more..She want have sex with him) i really don’t know why everybody say that Katniss is attacted by Gale because is really NOT so. Katniss fall in love with Peeta in Catching fire. She realize this when she say to him i do. I need you. This sentence is connected to the end of Mockingjay when she say what i need is the Dandelion in the spring. Well who is the dandelion? Peeta Mellark.

  • Exsugarbae

    I’m a cynical old bag and I love the idea that Katniss is just a nice girl with loyalty to Peeta and she just plays a really good game. Yes if she is faking her feelings she’s a very good liar but those lies keep them both alive so the deception is caring, typical of Katniss who manages to be very hard hearted when need be but compassionate and emotionally very bright. Will Peeta be heartbroken or just happy to be alive, hope it’s the later.

  • Heather magana

    I think the same thing love birds and they are good together and I have the same thing I am so obsessed with the hunger games!


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