Social exclusion literally feels cold

Our languages are replete with phrases that unite words evoking a sense of cold with concepts of loneliness, social exclusion or misanthropy. When we speak of icy stares, frosty receptions and cold shoulders, we invoke feelings of isolation and unfriendliness.  But cold and solitude are more than just metaphorical bedfellows; a new study shows that social exclusion can literally make people feel cold.

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Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli from the University of Toronto recruited 65 students and were asked to recall a situation where they either felt included within a group or left out of it. Afterwards, they asked the students to estimate the temperature in the room under the ruse of providing information for the maintenance staff. The estimates varied wildly but volunteers who had social exclusion on their minds gave an average estimate of 21C, while those who remembered fitting in guessed an average of 24C.

So far, so interesting. But Zhong and Leonardelli were not content with simply bringing social memories to the surface; for their next trick, they created real feelings of exclusion. They recruited 52 more students who were led to a computer cubicle and told that they were taking part in an online game with three anonymous players. The object was simply to throw a virtual ball between the group but unbeknownst to the volunteers, their “partners” were computer-controlled programmes. These avatars either intermittently passed the ball to the real player throughout the game, or left them out after a few cursory passes. 

Afterwards, the students completed an apparently unrelated marketing survey where they had to rate their preference for five different foods or drinks. Zhong and Leonardelli found that the behaviour of their virtual peers affected their preferences for foods, depending on their temperature! The “unpopular” students who had been left out of the ball-throwing game showed significantly stronger preferences for hot coffee or hot soup than those who had been allowed to play. On the other hand, both groups showed the same degree of preference for control foods such as Coke, apple or crackers.

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So being ostracised, or even the memory of being ostracised, drums up both a literal chill and a desire for warmth. It can work the other way round too; invoking the concept of temperature can alter your opinions of another person. In an as yet unpublished study, graduate students Lawrence Williams and John Bargh asked other students to hold a cup of hot or iced coffee, before talking to another researcher. Afterwards, those who held the hot drink rated the stranger as being warmer and friendlier and were more likely to recommend them for a job.

So to speak

To Zhong and Leonardelli, studies like these are a testament to the power of metaphors. When we first learn to wield them in English lessons, we are taught that they are not meant to be taken literally, and yet psychological experiments show that many metaphors reflect fundamental ties between our social lives and our physical sensations.

Zhong and Leonardelli suggest that this close link between temperature and social closeness may be rooted in our earliest interactions with other people. When our parents held us close to them, we felt the warmth of their bodies and when they kept their distance, they deprived us of that warmth. So from an early age, temperature and distance from another person go hand-in-hand.

Indeed, people seem to have a tendency to describe complex abstract concepts using familiar physical experiences. Positive traits like generosity, friendliness or compassion are associated with warmth, while greed and desire are associated with hunger. So it is with cold and solitude. This link between the physical and the abstract isn’t just a one-way street – the two domains are so closely linked that the abstract can also invoke the physical.

I’ve previously written about another example of this, where psychologists demonstrated the bond between physical and moral cleanliness – the so-called “Lady Macbeth effect“. In that study, people who were asked to recall past misdeeds felt the physical need to clean themselves, gravitating towards cleaning-related words and  preferring hygiene products over other items. Once again, clean consciences, dirty traitors and washing away your sins are more than just figurative turns of phrase.

Zhong and Leonardelli’s results open a door to a large flurry of follow-up questions. Could experiencing physical warmth help to lessen the hurt of social exclusion? Could a cup of warm chicken soup be more than a metaphorical remedy “for the soul”? Could ambient temperate affect the quality of social relationships, and could manipulating one influence the other? Does social cohesion have its own thermostat? Could the depressive experience of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) stem just as much from the chill of winter as it does from a dearth of sunlight? Are fans of Vanilla Ice destined to a life of loneliness and despair?

Reference: Zhong and Leonardelli. Cold and lonely: does social exclusion literally feel cold? Psychological Science in press.

Update: I really should have linked to this clip from the Mighty Boosh before…