What do a chilly reception, a cold-blooded murder, and an icy stare have in common? Each plumbs the bulb of what could be called your social thermometer, exposing our reflexive tendency to conflate social judgments—estimations of another’s trust and intent — with the perception of temperature. Decades of fascinating cross-disciplinary studies have illuminated the surprising speed, pervasiveness and neurobiology of this unconscious mingling of the personal and the thermal.
The blurring of ‘heat’ and ‘greet’ is highlighted in a recent experiment by Ohio University’s Matthew Vess, who asked whether this tendency is influenced by an individual’s sensitivity to relational distress. They found that people high in the psychological attribute called attachment anxiety (a tendency to worry about the proximity and availability of a romantic partner) responded to memories of a relationship breakup with an increased preference for warm-temperature foods over cooler ones: soup over crackers. Subjects low in attachment anxiety — those more temperamentally secure — did not show this “comfort food” effect.
In a related part of the same experiment, subjects were asked to reconstruct jumbled words into sentences that had either cold or warm evocations. (Sentence reconstruction tasks involving specific themes are known to unconsciously influence subsequent behavior.) After being temperature-primed, Vess’s subjects rated their perceptions of their current romantic relationship. As in the first condition, subjects higher in attachment anxiety rated their relationship satisfaction higher when prompted with balmier phrases than with frosty ones.
The fact that individual differences in a relationship-oriented trait (attachment anxiety) are related to a person’s sensitivity to unconscious temperature-related cues speaks to the “under the hood” unconscious mingling that occurs between our social perceptual system and our temperature perception system. Though people predisposed to worry about their relationships seem to be more sensitive to these cues, we are all predisposed to the blurring of different types of experience. Similar recent experiments have demonstrated, for example, that briefly holding a warm beverage buoys subsequent ratings of another’s personality, that social isolation sensitizes a person to all things chilly, that inappropriate social mimicry creates a sense of cold, and that differences in the setting of the experimental lab’s thermostat leads test subjects to construe social relationships differently.
Vess’s experiments follow a much longer line of psychological research exploring the reasons people avoid a cold shoulder, lament a frigid partner and have to “cool off” after a spat. In point of fact, the mercury in our social minds has been of interest since at least the 1940’s, when landmark work on impression-formation by the pioneering social psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated the “striking and consistent differences of impression” created by substituting the words “warm” and “cold” into a hypothetical person’s personality profile. Since then, a panoply of studies of social perception in a host of cultures have validated the centrality of these temperate anchors in forming rapid unconscious impressions of a person.
It will come as no surprise that the ultimate confluence of the thermal and the personal happens between our ears. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, for example, has noted that the neural machinery for attachment and bonding is actually cobbled together out of more primitive brain areas used for temperature regulation. Adding to this theme, the psychiatrist Myron Hofer’s seminal research in the 1970’s demonstrated that certain parameters of rodent maternal attachment behavior (e.g. variations in touch or warmth) act as “hidden regulators” of various physiological responses (e.g.digestion) in their pups. Around the same time, another psychiatrist, John Bowlby, penned his now-canon observations about the central importance of attachment for the social and psychological development of young humans, reminding us that we are just another part of a chain of mammals that depend on the care of others for survival.