Getting Warmer, Getting Colder: The Chilly Paradox of Familiarity

People are strange when you’re a stranger.

– Jim Morrison

For most of us, familiar surroundings are comforting. Familiar places and faces offer a sense of stability in the maelstrom of everyday life. This seems especially true when we’re going through hard times; perhaps any port in the storm will suffice, but the one you know best is doubtless the one you’d rather find. 

But does familiarity hold the same value if we’re feeling on top of the world?  In other words, does the warm glow of what we know always stay strong despite our mood? 

A  research report in the journal Psychological Science suggests that the warmth of familiarity intensifies or lowers depending on the emotional state-of-mind we bring to it.

In a series of experiments, researchers compared participant reactions to familiarity under happy, sad, and neutral mood conditions. In the first experiment, they found that under general conditions, when the mood variable was not manipulated one way or another, people prefered familiarity. But following experiments showed that sad participants strongly preferred familiarity over the neutral condition (indicated in both self-reports and facial electromyography – EMG). Happiness, however, eliminated this preference.

It’s worth noting that happiness did not in any way reduce the level of familiarity – it simply reduced its value (decreased the “warmth of its glow”).

This finding is significant because it challenges a long-held assumption that familiarity and positivity are intractably linked.  Instead, it seems that our mood “tunes” our reaction to familiarity. Another way this works is seen in reactions to safe and unsafe environments.  If our mood signals an unsafe environment, familiarity is positive. If our mood signals a safe environment, familiarity loses its “glow.” 

It’s tempting to pull another conclusion from this study – that happiness boosts an “exploration effect” by which we seek the unfamiliar (or you could say, seek the “warm glow of novelty”). While this study hints at this, there’s not enough evidence yet to fully bear it out. 

A practical takeaway from this study is that we’re all liable to take for granted the familiar people and things in our lives when we’re feeling good. But our usual assumption that this has something to do with those people or things is off base. It’s not them but us that changes how warmly they glow. And when times get tough, it should come as no surprise that their warmth suddenly feels indispensable, like the only fire keeping us from dying in the cold.
de Vries, M., Holland, R., Chenier, T., Starr, M., & Winkielman, P. (2010). Happiness Cools the Warm Glow of Familiarity: Psychophysiological Evidence That Mood Modulates the Familiarity-Affect Link Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797609359878

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Filed under About Perception, About Research

5 responses to “Getting Warmer, Getting Colder: The Chilly Paradox of Familiarity

  1. Pingback: Simoleon Sense » Blog Archive » Getting Warmer, Getting Colder: The Chilly Paradox of Familiarity

  2. C. Akritidis

    This research was actually funded? I wonder how much time and money is wasted on ‘proving’ the obvious. Hm… Let me see… When I’m hurt or sad, I tend to go back to the places and people that make me comfortable. When I’m fine, I eventually get bored and look for something better than what I already have. If this new thing is not too dangerous and unpredictable, I become more comfortable with it. The next huge step in research will be to ‘prove’ that I will then replace my original familiar environment with the new one, and move on to find an even better one.

    The recent trend towards studies that support the obvious is quite unsettling. In a world plagued by serious problems, common knowledge should be challenged only when there is even the slightest suspicion that it might be wrong. If the initial research shows there’s nothing unexpected there, why pursue it?

  3. c –
    I’m not totally unsympathetic to your point that some research begs the obvious, but in this case I don’t think your criticism is valid.

    I would argue that the familiarity paradox is part of an array of wrongly held assumptions that underlie a huge social problem. How many families are destroyed because one spouse projects his or her perception deficiencies on the other? On the flip side – how many people in dead-end jobs and relationships fail to move beyond their comfort zones and instead live lives of quiet desperation?

    Whether or not you’d call these problems common or obvious, the fact is that they’re very real, and well worth understanding.

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. C. Akritidis

    In Neal Stephenson’s novel ‘Anathem’, a group of scholars is dedicated to the knowledge of all that has been written or said before. Their expertise ensures that the rest of the scholars do not ‘rediscover the wheel’. If we had one of them handy, she would probably tell us that the problems you mention have already been deeply explored by psychologists, fiction writers and poets, philosophers and various religions. Many of them have even offered their own ways out of our mental prisons, which the paper does not seem to do.

    Thanks for answering, anyway.

  5. I feel far more individuals will need to read this, incredibly good info.

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