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Metaphors of the Mind: Why Loneliness Feels Cold and Sins Feel Dirty

A social psychologist explains how abstract concepts can create physical feelings
Chen-bo Zhong


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.

LEHRER: Your most recent paper looks at the relation between unconscious thought and creativity. What did you find?

ZHONG: In collaboration with Ap Dijksterhuis [a psychologist at Radboud University in  Nijmegen, the Netherlands] and Adam Galinsky [a professor of managment at Northwestern University] found that unconscious thought (such as being distracted while still holding a goal in mind)  can facilitate the search for creative solutions. These creative solutions may not be consciously recognizable, however. This research was motivated by early psychological research on the “incubation effect,” a hypothesis that a period of inattention can facilitate problem solving. Henri Poincare, for example, described how he was unable to solve an arithmetic problem after a long period of deliberation and only found the solution appear suddenly into consciousness after thinking about something else.

Despite abundant lay observations, empirical research often had troubles replicating the incubation effect in the lab. We suggest that part of the reason may be that even when unconscious thought generates creative solutions, these solutions still need to be transferred into the consciousness. Thus, the lack of empirical support for incubation may not be due to unconscious thought but to the transferring of unconscious solutions to the conscious. Using printing as an analogy: when a printer is not printing calculations of a program properly, it is not always because the program is not working. Instead, the connection between the program and the printer may be severed. Indeed, we found that after a period of unconscious thought, solutions to creative problems were unconsciously activated but participants were not able to consciously express those solutions. This finding suggests that the generation of creative solutions by unconscious thought and the transferring of these solutions to the conscious may be determined by different factors.  We are following up this work in our future research.

LEHRER: Does this suggest that taking pills that increase our ability to consciously focus might interfere with creativity?

ZHONG: Not necessarily, for two reasons. First, there is no doubt that unconscious processes may be most active during sleep but they can also be active while people consciously focus on something—just not the problem you hope to resolve. In our study, we manipulated unconscious thought by distracting participants from the task at hand and focusing them on a different, very cognitive demanding task. Thus, to harness the benefits of unconscious thought, one does not need to lose conscious focus. The key is to focus on an unrelated task while still keeping the goal of resolving the original problem. Second, it partially depends on the complexity of the problem. As it turns out in our research and other work by Dijksterhuis, consciously focusing on a problem is more effective than distraction when the problem does not involve remote connections. The advantages of unconscious thought are most prominent when resolving difficult problems that involve weak associations.

LEHRER: A recent paper of yours looked at the power of "negational racial identity" to influence votes. You showed that making Asian and Latino voters think about race in negational terms (thinking of themselves as "non-white") made them more likely to vote for Obama than Asian and Latino voters who were primed to think about their identity in affirmational terms (being Asian or Latino). You conclude that "negational identity is a meaningful source of social identity" and that "whether one thinks about 'who one is' versus 'who one is not' has far-reaching impact for real-world decisions." What are some other examples of "negational identity" at work? And what does this suggest about how people develop an identity?

ZHONG: Another example of negational identity would be the 2004 presidential Democratic primary, people who were once supporters of unsuccessful Democratic candidates such as Howard Dean and John Edwards, united over their common lack of support for the current president, George W. Bush (for instance, “anybody but Bush”) in the general election. Likewise, during my graduate study, I saw a Midwest talk radio show advertise itself on billboards with a slogan, “Liberals Hate It!” In both cases people focused on who they were not more than who they were.

The development of identity is a fluid process. Although people certainly differ in how they view themselves, their identity can also be primed or manipulated. The manipulation of the “non-white” identity in my recent article with Adam Galinsky [at Northwestern] and Miguel Unzueta [a professor of organizational behavior at UCLA] is one such example. Whether people see themselves through the affirmational or negational lens has significant social consequences, even though such effects may not be consciously noticed. Affirmational identity tends to assimilate people to their in-group and drive in-group favoritism. Negational identity, on the hand, defines individuals by contrasting individuals to a common non-membership. It may create a broad basis for building a coalition, uniting all who do not belong to the same group. In the meantime, however, it may increase hostility towards the common out-group. By highlighting the fluidity of identity and how easily it can be manipulated by campaigns, advertisements, and speeches, we hope to increase the likelihood that voters will consider specific issues rather than simply relying on group categories.

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

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