Classic as well as contemporary research in social psychology has demonstrated the central importance of interpersonal warmth
) in person perception, both in forming first impressions (Asch, 1946
; Kelley, 1951
) and as one of two main dimensions of out-group stereotypes around the world (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002
). Fiske, Cuddy, and Glick (2007)
concluded from their stereotype-content research that assessing interpersonal warmth versus coldness is the first step taken in forming impressions of any new acquaintance, and is essentially a `friend or foe' judgment. A `warm' individual is considered to be prosocial, cooperative, generous, and trusting, whereas `cold' individuals are viewed as self-centered, competitive, and untrustworthy.
But why exactly do we use the terms `warm' and `cold' to refer to these two basic sorts of individuals (and not the more straightforward `friend' vs. `foe', `cooperative' vs. `competitive', etc.)? The explanation Asch later offered (1958) for the power of the warm-cold dimension in person perception was that abstract psychological concepts such as interpersonal warmth are metaphorically based on concrete physical experiences. Asch thus anticipated Lakoff and Johnson (1980)
, Barsalou (1999)
and modern research on the `embodied grounding' of abstract concepts in physical experience (see Anderson, in press
; Haggard, Rossetti, & Kawato, 2008
; Semin & Smith, 2008
; Williams, Huang, & Bargh, 2009
). Concepts concerning the physical world (e.g., distance, size, temperature) form early in childhood as they are based on direct concrete experience (Mandler, 1992
) and do not require the language abilities or memory retrieval skills that come on-line years later. According to one approach, the `conceptual scaffolding' model of Williams et al. (2009)
, abstract concepts then develop based on (and thus become strongly associated with) these physical concepts to the extent they are analogous (i.e., share key features). This assumed associative relation helps to explain the fact that we so easily and fluently use physical terms to refer to and describe more abstract phenomena (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980
; Mandler, 1992
) – especially social and psychological phenomena, as in a `close' relationship, a `warm' smile, and a `higher calling'.
As to the underlying reason for the tight connection between physical and social warmth (and coldness), it seems clear how early childhood experiences with caretakers who provide both physical (holding close) and psychological warmth (love, trust, help, support) could lead to the development of a strong associative connection between the concepts of physical and social warmth. Indeed, the attachment theorist John Bowlby (1969)
argued that the conjoined needs for both physical and social warmth across evolutionary time periods has resulted in an innate drive for the young of many species, including humans, to maintain close distances to their parents and kin. As discussed below, there is now neuroanatomical evidence that the association between physical and social `temperature' is indeed hard-wired in humans. For present purposes, however, both the innate and the early-experience accounts of the physical-to-social warmth association lead to the prediction that physical warmth (coldness) experiences can produce the same subjective, phenomenal feeling states associated with psychological warmth (coldness). We now turn to evidence bearing on this prediction.
Harry Harlow (1958)
first demonstrated the importance of early physical warmth experiences in the social development of infant monkeys raised alone. Those in the `cloth mother' condition, which critically included a 100-watt light bulb behind the cloth, did not have nearly the social deficits in adulthood that characterized monkeys raised alone with a cold, wire mother. Thus, Harlow was the first to show how physical warmth could be effectively substituted
(in monkeys) for the absent maternal warmth, leading to significantly greater social warmth capacities for the monkey later in adulthood.
More recently, Williams and Bargh (2008)
showed that incidental warmth experiences (such as when holding a cup of hot coffee or taking a warm bath) produce in turn `warm' psychological experiences of trust and behavioral effects on generosity, without the person's awareness. In one experiment, having participants briefly and incidentally hold a paper cup of hot coffee versus iced coffee replicated the effects of the words warm
in Asch's (1946)
original impression formation study. In a second study, those first primed with warm physical experience were more selfless and generous regarding donation of their experimental payment than were those in the cold prime condition. Following up on this finding, IJzerman and Semin (2009)
first seated participants in either a cold or warm room, and found that those in the warmer room reported feeling interpersonally closer to the experimenter than those in the colder room. Most recently, Kang, Williams, Clark, Gray, and Bargh (2010
, Study 1) showed that warm physical priming produced greater trust in an economics trust game (Delgado et al., 2005
) compared to cold physical priming. Across all these studies, physical warmth (coldness) led to judgments and behavior that were socially warm (cold).
Reversing the causal direction, Zhong and Leonardelli (2008)
showed that after an actual or remembered social-rejection experience (i.e., social coldness), participants reported the room temperature as being colder than did those who had just recalled an inclusion experience, and also showed greater desire for warm food and drinks (but not control food and drinks, such as apples) than did those not excluded. Notably, the researchers suggested that perhaps “experiencing the warmth of an object could reduce the negative experience of social exclusion”. IJzerman and Semin (in press)
found that social distance manipulations also produced changes in the perception of room temperature; being seated relatively close versus distant from other participants in the experimental room produced higher estimations of room temperature, as did manipulations of the similarity of a target person – the more similar, the higher the temperature reported. As similarity has long been known to increase attraction and the probability of friendship (i.e., social warmth; Byrne, 1971
), together these studies show that experiences of social warmth produce concomitant feelings of physical warmth.
There is growing evidence from social neuroscience research that the association between physical warmth (coldness) and social warmth (coldness) might be `hardwired' in humans (Meyer-Lindenberg, 2008
). Insular cortex is implicated in the processing of both physical temperature (e.g., Craig, Chen, Bandy, & Reiman, 2000
; Sung et al., 2007
) and the psychosocial version of warmth information: feelings of trust (e.g., Sanfey, Rilling, Aronson, Nystrom, & Cohen, 2003
; Todorov et al., 2008
), empathy, and social emotions such as embarrassment and guilt (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003
; Kross, Egner, Ochsner, Hirsch, & Downey, 2007
). The most recent available evidence suggests that anterior insula provides the basis for subjective feelings and emotional awareness (Craig, 2002
, for reviews). Consistent with this hypothesized direct anatomical connection, Kang et al. (2010
, Study 2) observed in a recent fMRI investigation that left anterior insula became more activated following cold versus warm temperature sensation, and also more activated following betrayals of trust in the economics game.
It seems therefore that the `coldness' of loneliness or rejection could be treated somewhat successfully through application of physical warmth – that is, physical and social warmth might be at some level substitutable for each other. If so then the physical-social warmth association may be a boon to the therapeutic treatment of syndromes that are mainly disorders of emotion regulation, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD; see Glenn & Klonsky, 2009
). Indeed, in her influential biosocial approach to BPD, Linehan (1993)
emphasized the affective intensity and lability of patients and suggested that they could benefit from learning techniques to self-regulate their affective levels (p. 143).
In the present studies we extend the contemporary research on the relation between physical and social warmth by documenting in Study 1 how people already tend to self-regulate their feelings of social warmth (connectedness to others) with applications of physical warmth (as through taking warm baths or showers), yet apparently do so implicitly, without explicit awareness of the relation. We followed these studies with an experimental test of the coldness-loneliness relation involving physical temperature primes in Study 2. Next, in Study 3 we provide the first experimental test of whether interpolated physical warmth experiences can reduce feelings of social coldness, as caused by actual or recollected rejection experiences. These studies also expand on previous research by including chronic, individual difference measures of social connectedness (i.e., the UCLA Loneliness scale) in addition to temporary manipulations of those feelings (as in the previous research), and showing that these chronic measures produce conceptually similar effects. (The use of the chronic loneliness measure also helps rule out the “semantic priming” alternative interpretation that applies to much metaphor-priming research.)
Studies 1a and 1b focused on the predicted use of physical warmth (specifically, baths or showers) by the general public as a form of self-therapy to restore feelings of social warmth when those are lacking (as when one is feeling lonely). We followed these studies with an experimental test of the coldness-loneliness relation involving physical temperature primes in Study 2. Next, Study 3 directly tested the prediction that physical warmth experiences can effectively substitute for social warmth needs produced by social rejection experiences.
A further goal of the present research is to test for both implicit and explicit levels of awareness in our participants of the physical-social warmth relation, as the implicit knowledge may unconsciously manifest itself in actual behavior (e.g., increased bathing) in the absence of experienced distress or any explicit awareness of the relation (see Wilson & Brekke, 1994
). The lack of explicit awareness of the relation is especially surprising given how pervasive the use of the metaphor is in everyday language (“A warm smile”, “a cold shoulder”); clearly, people easily understand the social meanings of these physical terms and use them to effectively communicate about the personality and behavior of others (see Lakoff & Johnson, 1980
). Indeed, there are signs that at the cultural level we have possessed this knowledge for centuries: for example, Dante in the Inferno
linked the sin of betrayal of trust (i.e., extreme social coldness) with the poetic justice of being physically
frozen, indicating Dante for one appreciated the metaphorical relation between physical and social coldness. Yet our experimental participants (as well as those in previous research on this effect) showed no explicit awareness of the physical-social warmth relation in post-session debriefing (Studies 2 and 3), and the direct test of such awareness in Study 4 provided further evidence that people are not aware of the effect at a conscious level.