Cold Shoulder, Warm Heart

Friday, September 11, 2009

By Wray Herbert

One of Robert Frost’s best-loved poems is the short verse “Fire and Ice,” which goes like this:

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if I had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Most good poets are part psychologist, and Frost shows keen insight into the human mind in these seemingly simple lines. Indeed, his 1920 poem anticipated ideas that are just now emerging in cognitive science—specifically the notion that our bodily sensations are inextricably bound up with emotions like hatred and desire. Or to put it a way that the Bard of New England would have appreciated, the metaphorical thermometer is as much a gauge of social life as it is of degrees Fahrenheit.

At least that’s the theory, which psychologists have been exploring in various ways in the laboratory. Here’s a recent example, from Hans IJzerman and Gun Semin of Utrecht University. The psychologists were intrigued by such metaphors as “the cold shoulder” and “warm feelings,” and decided to test the link between thermometer readings and feelings of closeness or distance, affection or iciness. They ran a few experiments to test this in different ways.

The first experiment was straightforward. Volunteers who had just arrived in the lab were asked to hold the experimenter’s beverage for a few minutes, ostensibly so he could do something that required two hands. Some were handed a cold beverage, and others a warm one. Then they were asked to rate both themselves and an acquaintance on a well-known scale that measures social proximity; the more they overlapped with
the other, the higher their score on closeness; the less overlap, the more distant they were feeling. The results were also straightforward. Holding the warm beverage induced greater feelings of closeness than the cold beverage.

Those findings are intriguing but hardly conclusive, so the researchers looked at the body-mind link a different way. When we are literally close to someone or something, we see more detail; our experience is more concrete. Similarly, distance makes our vision of things more vague and abstract. The psychologists reasoned from this that feelings of warmth would induce not only emotional closeness toward others, but also perceptual closeness--and thus more vivid and concrete perceptions.

They didn’t use beverages in this study. Instead they varied the room temperature, from the low 60s F to low 70s F. This isn’t a huge variation, but the researchers figured it would be enough to test the idea that temperature shapes emotion and thought. They showed all the volunteers a short film clip of chess pieces moving around, but not the usual way chess pieces move, and they asked the volunteers to describe “in their own words” what was happening. The idea was that room temperature would shape their perceptions and as a result the language that the volunteers used. That is, warm observers would write concrete descriptions of the chess scene, and chilly observers would write more abstract descriptions.

And that’s exactly what they found. When they coded the language in the narratives, they found that room temperature did indeed affect the volunteers’ choice of words. The warm volunteers also expressed greater feelings of closeness toward the experimenter.

The psychologists decided to take this one step further, to see if temperature shapes not only language but worldview. It’s well known that people from cultures that place a high value of individualism—Americans, for example—have a particular cognitive style, compared to more communitarian cultures. Specifically, those from communal cultures tend to see patterns in the world, where individualists tend to see disconnected parts. The researchers suspected that warmth would spark more a more relational worldview, while cold would induce a more self-reliant view.

They varied the room temperature as before, but this time they had the volunteers take a perception test specifically designed to differentiate these cognitive styles. That is, some people perceive patterns where others see independent components, and this is taken as a measure of either a relational or individualistic worldview. And once again, temperature showed a clear and direct connection to how volunteers processed what they saw. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, warmth made volunteers see the connections between things, while the chilly were more individualistic in their perceptions of the world.

So affection, concrete language, communitarian worldview—that’s a lot to hook to the simple rising and falling of mercury. But perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, the researchers say. After all, the mind evolved along with the body over millions of years, so the way we think and feel was no doubt shaped by real and important experiences in the world. What could be more basic than staying warm?

For more insights into the quirks of the human mind, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Excerpts from the “We’re Only Human” blog also appear regularly at and in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:34 PM


At 1:30 PM , Blogger Greg said...

Really interesting, Wray! Explains why so many great things come from Texas.... ;)

At 3:52 PM , Blogger scressley said...

I like the ending of this and the picture. It does make sense. Our ancestor's main goal was to survive, and to do this they needed to stay warm during cold nights. While they were huddling around the fire, these nightly occasions became a social tme fore them. Where they could laugh and cozy up to their special someone.
This happens in modern times to. When we are have good times with family or friends we are usually in warm, cozy settings. So unconsciously we relate the fact that we are warm to the fact that we are also happy.