Chen-Bo Zhong is an assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. In recent years, he’s explored a wide variety of topics, from the benefits of relying on the unconscious to generate creative insights to the reasons people often use temperature metaphors (“icy stares,” “cold shoulders,” and so on) when describing acts of social rejection. Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Zhong about his latest research.
LEHRER: You recently demonstrated that being socially excluded from a group can make people feel colder, so that they believe a room is colder and prefer warm drinks and snacks, such as hot coffee and soup. What made you interested in this line of research?
ZHONG: I came across this popular 1970s song on YouTube called Lonely This Christmas written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. It goes, “It'll be lonely this Christmas, lonely and cold, it'll be cold so cold, without you to hold.” It just occurred to me that maybe what the song describes is more than a metaphor but a real psychological connection between loneliness and coldness. Indeed, my collaborator Geoffrey Leonardelli [a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto] and I found that people not only use coldness-related terms to describe social rejection (for example, “cold shoulder”), but also experience rejection as physical coldness: feeling cold becomes an integral part of our experience of being socially isolated. This research is consistent with recent theories on embodied cognition as well as general research on the connection between mind and body.
LEHRER: What are some other examples of how seemingly abstract thoughts, such as feeling excluded, can have physical manifestations?
ZHONG: Another example would be the relation between morality and physical cleanliness. In my early work “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing” in collaboration with Katie Liljenquist [a professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University], we discussed how metaphors such as “dirty hands” or “clean records” may have a psychological basis such that people make sense of morality through physical cleanliness.
When people’s moral self image is threatened, as when they think about their own unethical past behaviors, people literally experience the need to engage in physical cleansing, as if the moral stain is literally physical dirt. We tested this idea in multiple studies and showed that when reminded of their past moral transgressions, people were more likely to think about cleansing-related words such as “wash” and “soap”, expressed stronger preference for cleansing products (for instance, a soap bar), and were also more likely to accept an antiseptic wipe as a free gift (rather than a pencil with equal value).
Further, physical cleansing may actually be effective in mentally getting rid of moral sins. In another study, in which participants who recalled unethical behaviors were either given a chance to cleanse their hands or not, we found that washing hands not only assuaged moral emotions such as guilt and regret but also reduced participants’ willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering Thus physical washing can actually wash away sins. Perhaps this effect is why most world religions practice some form of washing rituals to purify souls. We should be cautious, however, knowing that if our sins are so easily “washed away” we might not be as motivated to engage in actual compensatory behaviors to make up for our mistakes.