We often talk about personality in physical terms. Whether it's someone giving us the "cold shoulder" or being a "warm" individual, it's not uncommon to reference, say, temperature when describing the people we know. The idea is that we deal with abstract psychological states the best way we know how, we take them literally. This linking of the mental and physical can lead us to act in some surprising ways.
Take loneliness as an example. Through early experiences with caretakers whose trust and comfort often goes hand-in-hand with physical warmth, physical temperature seems to have become indistinguishable, on some level, from psychological feelings of connectedness.
Indeed, some of the same brain areas that register physical temperature are also sensitive to feelings of loneliness and social rejection. With these connections in mind, psychologists at Yale University recently tested whether people might use physical warmth as a way to feel better about themselves.
Researchers Idit Shalev and John Bargh asked people to fill out a bunch of questionnaires about their "personal habits." Included in these questionnaires were inquiries about how often, in the last three months, people bathed or showered and how long they stayed in the water. Folks also filled out a scale assessing how lonely they were. People rated how often they, for example, felt starved for company or unhappy having nobody to talk to.
Sure enough, when the researchers compiled the data, what they found was a strong connection between loneliness and both the frequency of bathing and the typical duration of people's baths and showers. The lonelier someone was, the more they bathed and the longer this bath or shower was. It seems that people tend to substitute physical warmth for missing social warmth in their lives.
As added support for the idea that we might use warmth to feel better psychologically, the Yale researchers ran another study where they asked people to recall a lonely experience. When people were given the opportunity to hold a hot pack as they thought about their loneliness, they had less negative feelings about their exclusion experience than people who didn't get to embrace something warm.
Interestingly, people aren't aware of using physical temperature as a way to change their feelings. When we see a person who takes a lot of baths or showers, we don't view him or her as lonely. But, our behavior — at least at an unconscious level — suggests that we see loneliness as a social coldness; a negative emotional state that can be tempered through physical warmth.
The idea that warming ourselves physically leads to social warmth gives new meaning to self-help books like Chicken Soup for the Soul. For over a decade, this series has thrived by sharing real stories of success, struggle, love and hope to millions of readers around the world. People turn to these books to find inspiration after breakups or in times of loneliness. And, yes, they seem to make people feel better. As it happens, tucking into an actual bowl of warm chicken soup may help as well.
For more on the connections between body and mind, check out my book, Choke.
Bargh, J. A., & Shalev, I. (2011, May 23). The Substitutability of Physical and Social Warmth in Daily Life. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0023527