You’re probably aware, in some intuitive way, that you’re happier when you’re warm, that your mood tends to improve once Memorial Day rolls around. But you might not know just how much research has been done on the profound ways changes in temperature affect our moods and behavior. You might not know that pleasant, warm weather makes people more helpful, or that heat is associated with increased aggression and higher crime rates.
In short, researchers have found that there’s a good reason the connection between being lonely and feeling cold exists in many languages, in songs and poetry.
Toronto, where the average daytime winter temperatures hover just below freezing, was an appropriate setting for a pair of researchers from the University of Toronto to investigate the connection between being cold and feeling lonely. In two experiments, they examined whether physical temperature affects our psychological states, and also whether our feelings affect our perception of temperature.
In the first experiment, the researchers asked thirty-two students to recall a situation in which they felt they were socially excluded and lonely. Think of not being invited to a party, not being asked to play a game with others, et cetera. Another thirty-two students were asked to think of a situation in which they were socially included, like being accepted into a club. The researchers then intentionally diverted the students’ attention by telling them that the university maintenance staff wanted to know how hot or cold the room was. Would the students please estimate the temperature in the room? The students who recalled being socially excluded actually judged the room as colder than those who had recalled being socially included. The average estimate of those who remembered being excluded was 70.5 degrees, compared with an average estimate of 75.2 degrees by those who remembered being included. Yet they all had sat in exactly the same room.
So you see, emotional memories can influence your physical experience in the present. There is a powerful connection—even across time—between coldness and loneliness.
The researchers then wanted to go beyond summoning a memory of loneliness and re-create the experience in the present. So they used a brilliant way of making people feel left out. They invited one group of subjects to play a virtual ball-tossing game. Participants were asked to sit at the computer and play online with three other players at different locations. What they didn’t know was that actually there were no other players; there was only a “cruel” computer program designed to throw the digital “ball” almost exclusively to the fictitious players in order to make the real person feel left out. The second group of participants got to play the same ball-tossing game, but with a computer program that was much less discriminatory in its ball tossing. These actual players received the ball intermittently throughout the game and, not surprisingly, had a much better time.
After the ball-tossing game, both groups were asked to participate in an ostensibly unrelated marketing task, to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how much they desired five different products: hot coffee, hot soup, an apple, crackers, and an icy Coke. Of course, the participants didn’t know that the researchers were in fact interested in the effect of the earlier exclusion, and the researchers found that the “excluded” students were significantly more likely to choose something hot than were the students who were not excluded. They concluded that warmth can be a remedy for loneliness.
Another group of researchers went to a deeper, more somatic level of studying exclusion and examined whether our skin temperature is actually lower when we feel left out. They used the same virtual ball-tossing game as in the previous study, and again the computer was programmed for two conditions: inclusion and exclusion. In the inclusion game, participants received the ball every few throws, whereas in the exclusion game they never received the ball. Researchers measured participants’ finger temperature during the experiment and found that participants who were excluded really became colder, and their finger temperatures decreased.
Going even further, the researchers conducted an experiment to answer the question, Can holding something warm actually improve the feelings of people who have been excluded? They asked participants to play the same ball-tossing game and again divided them into excluded and included groups. This time, however, the researchers programmed the computer to stop after three minutes and display an alleged “error.” When this happened, a researcher arrived at the participants’ station holding a glass containing either cold or warm tea. All the participants requested his assistance, and the researcher then asked each participant to hold the beverage while he fixed the computer. Afterward, participants were asked to choose whether they had felt “bad,” “tense,” “sad,” or “stressed” and to rate their feeling from 1 to 5. I would certainly have predicted that those who had been excluded would report more negative feelings than those who had been included, which was true for these participants. The amazing part of the results is that only those who were excluded and held a cold glass of tea had more negative feelings. For those who were excluded but had held a warm glass, their warm hands had warmed their feelings and, apparently, caused them to feel better.
Taken together, these results clearly show that feeling cold or warm is determined not only by the temperature of the room but also by your mental state. If you feel lonely, whether you are actually excluded from an activity or you are in the same room with individuals who do not share your opinions, choices, and views, both your physical experience and your psychological experience actually change. Even if you just stand or sit far from someone or from a group, you feel isolated. The room becomes cold for you. In contrast, if you feel socially accepted, if you are in a room with people who share your opinions and preferences and views, or if you just sit close to someone, you feel that the room is warmer.
These findings have direct implications for how we live and should be especially important to teachers, educators, and parents, who try to help children adjust to many situations. For example, children and adolescents sometimes feel lonely or isolated at school, and this feeling can lead to adjustment problems. Now that you know that warm temperatures can positively affect interpersonal interactions, you can help children not to feel as if they have been left out in the cold, and also help others feel warmer toward them. A simple action such as turning up the heat, asking children to put on sweaters, or having children share hot chocolate or hot lunches together can help support a positive interpersonal climate.
A young man I know told me that when he was a teenager his parents sent him to a psychologist to try to improve their relationship with him, but he was so uncomfortable in the doctor’s office that he didn’t even take off his coat for the first four months. It took him that long to warm up even to the psychologist. I myself have gone to a number of parties where I did not know anybody and felt quite lonely when entering the room. Many other people must have felt that way, too, as they didn’t take off their coats either. Whether you’re hosting a meeting or a party, make sure that the room is warm, at least at the beginning of a gathering. Serving warm drinks in a cold season and warm soup as a starter to a dinner might help. Lonely people—or people who are in new, unfamiliar social situations—need psychological warmth as well as physical warmth.
Could temperature affect more than just our opinions and feelings? Could it actually influence our behavior? Could your daily ritual of drinking coffee change the likelihood that you would, say, spare some change for someone who asks for help outside your neighborhood coffee shop? Does your warm morning tea help you start your day with a more open, positive attitude and even help you to trust others more? Lawrence Williams and John Bargh, the researchers at Yale who conducted the experiments with warm cups of coffee, devised a way to find out.
They told participants that they were conducting a consumer marketing study and gave them a “new product,” a therapeutic pad. Participants were asked to hold the pad—which was either hot or cold—for a few moments, then evaluate its effectiveness and indicate whether they would recommend it to friends, family, and strangers. But the most important part of the study was actually not the survey but the decision participants were asked to make after it. Individually, participants were given a choice between two rewards for participating in the study: a refreshment for themselves or a small gift certificate in the name of a friend they could choose.
The results were dramatic. Among those who held the cold pad, about 75 percent chose a reward for themselves and only 25 percent chose a gift for a friend. Of those who handled and reviewed the hot pad, 54 to 46 percent chose a gift for a friend. That is a significant statistical difference in giving behavior. Yet the only factor that was different in the experiment was the temperature of the pad in the participants’ hands.
The results of this experiment reinforce the notion that philanthropy and charitable donations can be more emotional than rational. This is not to say that giving is purely an emotional urge, because of course it contains a large rational component. We are not prone to bouts of careless giving or fits of philanthropy, but we do give for many reasons: we may want to be liked and respected by the recipient; we may want to be perceived as generous in our communities; and we may want to feel important and needed. But this experiment, like most embodied cognition experiments, shows that there is a visceral influence on our actions, even those that we believe come from purely logical thought processes. It also shows that not only is there a significant emotional and subconscious component, but we can be compelled to act by mundane and subtle quotidian forces. In this case, the behavior was triggered by the most trivial act (holding a therapeutic pad for a few moments).
Williams and Bargh led another investigation into whether holding a warm object would influence trust as well as generosity. The bedrock of marriages, friendships, and business relationships, trust can be hard-won and delicate, determined by many factors. Why do we build certain trusting relationships and not others? The decision to trust someone can be instantaneous and it can feel intuitive, but a little bit of warmth may help forge this important bond.
Researchers asked participants to hold a therapeutic pack that was either cold (59 degrees) or hot (105.8 degrees) in another supposed consumer product study. Then they had participants play a game in which some acted as investors and others as trustees. The investor decided how much money he or she would send to the trustee, who sat anonymously in the other room. The amount that the investor sent to the trustee was immediately tripled on receipt. Then the trustee had to decide how much money he or she returned. In each round of the game, the investors could invest any amount of money from none to one dollar in ten-cent increments. The more the investor invested, the greater the possibility he or she would get back more money, but only if the trustee chose to return it. Although participants believed they were participating in an investing game, they were really engaging in a test of trust. The more an investor trusted the trustee, the more money he or she would invest.
The results of the study were amazing. Those who touched the cold pack just before the game invested less money compared with those who touched the warm pack. The group with the cold pack did not so easily trust the trustees and were not so sure the trustees would return the investment. Holding a hot therapeutic pack, however, prompted people to feel more intimacy and trust others more readily.
The generosity, trust, and intimacy effect of warmth seems to be short-term. Our minds are affected for only a little while by what our bodies feel, but, as I said earlier, what is brief is not necessarily unimportant. A snap judgment can have lasting consequences. The first step toward being able to control and work with these “peas and cues” from our environment—and from other people—is to become aware of them.
Consider that you might be able to improve a first date—or an initial business meeting—by merely giving your companion a warm drink. You might also consider meeting at a Japanese restaurant that offers warm towels before you eat. Whenever you want another person to perceive you as warm or sympathetic, offer him a cup of warm tea or coffee. In negotiations over things such as salary, sales, or divorce, if you want the other side to compromise or show some generosity, you might offer a nice cup of tea or an espresso, rather than a cold soft drink. Doing so just may tip the scales in your favor.
From Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence by Thalma Lobel. Copyright © 2014 by Thalma Lobel. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Endnotes have been replaced with hyperlinks, and this excerpt was lightly edited.