If you have a falling out with someone and they start ignoring you, they’re “giving you the cold shoulder.” If you feel emotionally close to someone, you have “warm feelings” towards that person. We’re accustomed to using metaphorical language like this to describe human relationships, but do these words also imply more literal meanings?
A new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated whether the actual experience of warmth or coldness influences our perception of social relationships. In other words, are temperature differences tied to differences in social closeness and social distance?
The study included three experiments; in the first, participants entered the lab and were handed either a cold or a warm beverage. They were then asked to fill out a questionnaire (which was just a prop for the study), and then asked to select a person they knew and rate their relationship with that person on a scale called the Inclusion of Other in Self, designed to determine the degree of closeness between the subject and the person he or she selected. At no time were the subjects made aware why they were holding a warm or cold beverage — all they knew is that they were being asked to complete a few questionnaires.
The results: subjects holding the warm beverage had a significantly higher level of perceived closeness to the individual they selected than subjects holding the cold beverage, bearing out the hypothesis that physical warmth is tied to perception of social “warmth.”
The second experiment investigated whether watching film clips in a warm or cold room influenced the choice of language used to describe the film, with the hypothesis being that warmer temperatures will influence subjects to use more concrete language (such as “John punched David”) versus more abstract descriptions ( “John is angry with David”). The results were that subjects watching in the warm room did in fact use more concrete language to describe the film than subjects in the cold room, who used abstract terms to describe the same clips. Previous research has shown that use of concrete language strongly correlates with a sense of social proximity, whereas abstract language correlates with social distance.
I notice similarities in these results with those of a study discussed here, which indicates that physical experience of weight influences perception of weight (you might recall that one, where subjects held either a heavy or light clipboard while evaluating amounts of foreign currencies and importance of decisions). Taken together, these studies offer strong support for the argument that our perceptions are influenced by multiple factors lurking outside our conscious grasp.
All of this reminds me of a a stunt from the Penn and Teller show “Bull Sh**”, that shows how the experience of being in an expensive restaurant and given elaborate descriptions of the food by a well-versed waiter influences perception of taste. The effect in this case is more direct than those in the studies cited above, but still in the same ballpark. [upfront warning, the clip is full of expletives — if you’ve ever watched the show you know what I mean.]
IJzerman, H., & Semin, G. (2009). The Thermometer of Social Relations: Mapping Social Proximity on Temperature Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02434.x