The "cold shoulder" is real

NEW YORK, N.Y.; September 16, 2008

"When we talk about social experiences we usually think of them as abstract ideas, like morality or social exclusion, but ... these perceptions are not as abstract as you think," said lead study author Chen-Bo Zhong, assistant professor in the department of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Toronto.

"These perceptions are actually deeply connected to physiological experiences and bodily perceptions. Our social experience on whether we've been socially included or rejected and isolated actually has consequences on physiological experiences so that we literally feel cold."

In order to measure the participant's perception of temperature after experiencing social exclusion or isolation, the researchers asked half of the study subjects to recall a personal experience in which they had been socially excluded. They then asked the other half of the group to recall an experience in which they felt socially accepted.

After recalling these social experiences, the researchers told the subjects that the building manager wanted to survey how comfortable the temperature was in the building, and had all the volunteers estimate the temperature in the room. They found that the subjects' estimates of the temperature ranged from a low of 54 degrees to a high of 104 degrees.

The reason for the wild array of guesses? Zhong says it is because those who recalled socially isolating experiences literally felt cold after dwelling on these memories. In contrast, those who recalled socially-inclusive experiences reported feeling much warmer than the actual room temperature.

"We speculated on reasons for this and one reason we think is that in our daily lives we experience these two things together -- temperature and social experience -- in the sense that when we're kids, being closer to the caretaker brings us warmth, and distance or rejection from the caretaker means you feel more cold," Zhong explained. "So these correlations get encoded in our memory, and there are psychological theories on how these perceptions change specific experiences."

Lawrence Williams, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Colorado, purported one such theory on how our perception can manipulate and change how we experience certain situations.

"The psychological world can bias your sensations or judgments about the physical world," Williams said. "A quick and subtle inconsequential activation of an idea such as loneliness can have meaningful impact on people's judgment and decisions."

The theory that environmental cues can unconsciously trigger you to think or act differently was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, author of "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."

Gladwell's book was one of the first mainstream presentations of the theory that people often make split-second decisions and "think without thinking" because of environmental cues that we subconsciously absorb


Williams has explored this theory in his work as well. Williams recently conducted a study (of which the manuscript is still under review and has not yet been published) looking to determine whether environmental cues might influence one's psychological state in the same way that one's psychological state might influence perception of the physical environment.

Williams tested this hypothesis by asking study participants to hold objects that were either hot or cold. He then introduced the subjects to a new person and asked that they rate this individual's personality. He found that the subjects would judge the stranger's personality as more warm and inviting if they were holding a hot object, and more cold and reserved if they were holding a cold object.

"It doesn't take much effort for people to be influenced by these environmental cues," Williams said. "It's effortless and unintentional ... and people aren't aware of what's going on when it happens."

According to Joshua Ackerman, a post-doctoral associate in the department of psychology at Yale University, the idea that environmental cues can influence one's thoughts and actions is a pretty widely accepted theory at this point.

"The logical next step is to understand how this [idea] translates back to our perception of the environment, and this [new study] is a good example of that next step," Ackerman said.

Ackerman is currently involved in a study looking at how touch experiences can influence one's perception of social experiences. According to Ackerman, the idea that friendly people are "warm" and that distant, isolated people are "cold" is more than just a metaphor of language.

"The physical experience gets translated into a metaphor for that experience," Ackerman said. "If you feel a soft, fuzzy stuffed animal, that not only will activate the physical experience of something soft and fuzzy but will also activate subconscious concepts related to softness and fuzziness, and those concepts will then color the perception and judgments and interactions we have with other people."

"There's a reason we talk about how warm people are friendly and cold people are distant," Ackerman added. "Those are the metaphors we have for those things, but it's more than just language. It also effects all these downstream events as well."

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