Being excluded from a social group makes you feel cold -- literally

ResearchBlogging.orgI play soccer every week with an ever-changing group of people. We're all busy, and people get injured or lose interest, so every week the crowd is slightly different; it often feels like we need to re-acquaint ourselves before every game. The easiest way to do this is during warm-ups when small groups kick the ball around in a circle or take practice shots on goal.

If you arrive a little late, you might have to insinuate yourself into one of the groups by strolling up and hoping someone passes you the ball. Typically this is pretty easy, but if the others are engaged in conversation, they might not notice you, and you might have to stand there for a few uncomfortable seconds before someone passes the ball to you. If they don't, you might start to wonder if you're really welcome. Being isolated from the group, even for a few seconds, feels awful. In fact, studies have found that social isolation activates the same brain regions as physical pain.

When a person is unfriendly, we often say they're "cold." People we like are described as "warm." One study even found that holding a cup of cold coffee led people to make more negative judgments about another person's personality (compared to hot coffee). But can it work the other way around -- does social exclusion make a person feel colder?

Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli told a college student volunteers that they would be participating in a set of unrelated experiments. First they were asked to recall a time when they felt either socially excluded or included. Then a research assistant told them that the lab maintenance staff was working on the heating system for the room, and asked them to estimate the room's temperature. You guessed it: the participants' temperature estimates corresponded to whether they had been prompted to think about social exclusion or inclusion, as this graph indicates.

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Thinking about a social exclusion experience literally made the students feel colder -- significantly colder than those who thought about being included (if you're not familiar with the centigrade scale, the temperatures convert to 70.5 for the excluded and 75 for the included students -- quite dramatic).

In a second experiment, the researchers had a new set of volunteers play "catch" using a computer game that simulated tossing a ball between three people. They thought they were playing with other real people, but in fact the computer was programmed to "include" or "exclude." Half the students were regularly thrown the ball. The other students got to catch the ball twice, but then for the last thirty throws, the computer had the other two "players" toss the ball between themselves, excluding the participants.

Next, everyone was asked to rate the desirability of five different types of food. If you feel cold, it was reasoned, you'd prefer hot foods. Here are the results:

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Students who had been excluded from the game of catch rated coffee and soup as significantly more desirable than the students who were included in the game. There was no significant difference in the ratings for the other foods. It's not much of a leap of logic to say that the reason the socially-excluded students preferred the hot foods is because they were feeling colder.

Chen-Bo Zhong, Geoffrey J. Leonardelli (2008). Cold and Lonely: Does Social Exclusion Literally Feel Cold? Psychological Science, 19 (9), 838-842 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02165.x

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I wonder what are the implications of this on social behavior in cold and warm seasons or locations. Also, do introverted people feel warmer than extroverted people?

Introverted people by their very nature find it more difficult to insinuate themselves into social groups; so in theory, they'd feel colder not warmer due to the increased likelihood of exclusion.

It makes sense to think that this effect - if true - should have been evident after McCain had conceded. A swell of people longing for soup and hot snacks should bulge the sales figures for these foodstuffs. On the other hand... the Obama crowds would perhaps offset it by suddenly swilling massive amounts of icecream. Research is hard.

It would be interesting to know if their body temp. actually varried as social interactions and emotional responces do affect metobolic, endocrine and cardio function! jk

By John M. Kalb (not verified) on 06 Nov 2008 #permalink

So can you look at a crowd and make a guesstimate of people's self-perception of how well they fit in a group based on how much they're bundled up?

By abburdlen (not verified) on 08 Nov 2008 #permalink