Feeling Chilly? A Romance Movie Might Just Warm You Up

The sensation of coldness can boost the preference for love stories.

Posted May 28, 2012

With Memorial Day comes some of the year's biggest action blockbusters. With Valentine's Day comes some of the year's biggest romance films. Is there a connection? It may be that movie distributors have been intuiting a fresh and unusual research finding: feeling physically cold can activate the preference for love stories.

Does watching a movie like The Notebook make you feel warm and fuzzy? Or perhaps Love Actually? Research has found that feeling cold motivates people to seek out psychological warmth. A new study investigated this relationship, but also asked something unexpected: does physical coldness stir the desire to watch romance movies, which are associated with psychological warmth?

To explore this question, Jiewen Hong and Yacheng Sun drew on research in “embodied cognition,” the idea that the mind and the body are not only intertwined, but that the body also influences the mind. It's widely recognized that psychological warmth is often intimately tied to physical warmth, such as when cuddling or cradling. An assortment of experiments demonstrates support for this connection. For example, people who held a cup of hot vs. iced coffee judged a fictitious person as having a warmer personality (i.e., generous, caring, and friendly). Physical warmth also sparked a greater perception of social proximity, while social rejection induced feeling cold. Similarly, chronically lonely people showed an increased tendency to take warmer and longer baths or showers. Moreover, neuroscientific research indicates that the insular cortex is involved in processing both physical and psychological warmth. Taken together, these studies provide convergent evidence for the close association between the two. Since staying warm is a basic human need, the authors contend that feeling frigid should stimulate a desire for heat. In turn, this desire may manifest itself psychically, given the entwined nature of bodily and psychological warmth.

Past work has also shown that people perceive romantic love and warmth as cozily linked. On a metaphoric level, romantic love is often described in heat-related terms. The authors reference the lyrics of a 1970s hit song by Van Morrison: “It’s just warm love, and it’s ever present everywhere.” Semantically speaking, there may be deeper meaning to the phrases "to hold warm feelings toward someone" and "to give someone the cold shoulder." Furthermore, warmth is considered to be an ideal characteristic in a romantic partner. The relationship between romance and psychological warmth may indeed have its basis in the physiological changes that typically accompany being in love, such as sweaty palms, flushing, increased heart palpitations, and accelerated breathing.

In light of these findings, Hong and Sun wondered if cinematic love stories might be more desirable when people are physically cold since these films exude psychological warmth. But is the human need for warmth so strong that it could even guide movie preferences? Their studies reveal that the connection between the mind and the body operates in mysterious ways.

The investigators devised hot and cold temperature conditions to which participants were randomly assigned. In one experiment, subjects were told that they were taking part in a drink evaluation study, but that was just a cover story. They were asked to sip a cup of warm or iced tea while completing another study on movie preferences, which was the scientists' real objective. Participants were first given information about movies from the genres of romance, action, comedy, and thriller. For each film, they were presented with the title, a synopsis, a fictitious viewer rating (ranging from 8.5 to 8.8 out of 10), and the genre. They then rated how much they would want to see the movie, and how good they thought it would be.

In another experiment, physical coldness was manipulated by varying ambient room temperature. In this scenario subjects were again given information about a movie, but were also asked how much they would be willing to pay to watch it. This took place in either a cold room (59 - 62F) or a warm room (72 - 75F).

What did the investigators find? Feeling chilly boosted participants' preferences for romance movies, but not for the other genres. Since the authors made sure that the subjects didn't happen to have a penchant for romance films, the experiments show that under cool conditions they liked love stories in particular. What's more, this result held true for both men and women.

Hong and Sun also wondered whether people would watch romance movies with heightened frequency when it's cold outside. Along with their laboratory experiments, they analyzed records from an online movie rental company. They matched historical temperature data with each customer's zip code, examining the pattern of film rentals for five genres: romance, action, comedy, drama, and thriller. The results revealed that as the temperature dropped, the fondness for romance films rose. Once again, this effect was not observed for the other genres.

So, movie executives, you may want to take note. In addition to the story and the actors, temperature might also determine a movie's box-office success.

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More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults.  She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. 

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.

Journal Reference:

Hong, J. & Sun, Y. Warm It Up with Love: The Effect of Physical Coldness on Liking of Romance Movies. Journal of Consumer Research: August 2012

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