The social thermometer: Temperature affects how we perceive relationships

LANGUAGE contains many sayings which link our feelings and behaviour towards others to temperature. We might, for example, hold "warm feelings" for somebody, and extend them a "warm welcome", while giving somebody else "the cold shoulder" or "an icy stare". Why is that we have so many metaphors which relate temperature to social distance? According to George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, we judge others on the basis of warmth because abstract concepts, such as affection, are firmly grounded in bodily sensations.

There is evidence for Lakoff's hypothesis, which shows that these sayings are more than just metaphors. Last year, a study by psychologists from the University of Toronto showed that participants who recalled an experience in which they felt socially excluded gave lower estimates of room temperature than participants who recalled a social inclusion experience. Hans Ijzerman and Gün R. Semin of Utrecht University now show that the opposite is also true. In a paper published in Psychological Science, they report that temperature affects the perception of social relations and the language used to describe them.

Ijzerman and Semin recruited 33 students to take part in the study. In one experiment, these participants were asked to hold a drink when they arrived at the lab, while the experimenter apparently installed a questionnaire on a computer. After filling out the questionnaire (which was not related to the study), the participants were asked to choose a person they know and to rate themselves and that person on the Inclusion of Other in Self (IOS) scale. This consists of a series of diagrams and is designed to measure the perceived degree of overlap with others; the greater the overlap between the circles, the higher the social proximity, which the researchers defined as the perceived, rather than physical, distance between self and other.

The participants had been divided into two groups at the beginning of the experiment. Those in the warm condition had been given a warm drink to hold when they entered the room, while those in the cold condition had been given a cold one. It was found that the perceived degree of overlap with the known other was significantly greater for those participants handed a warm drink at the start of the experiment than those handed a cold one. Similarly, another recent study found that those who hold a hot cup of coffee judged others to be more generous and caring than those who held a cup of iced coffee.

In a second experiment, IJzerman and Semin investigated whether manipulating room temperature would affect the language used to describe simulated social events. This time, 52 participants were asked to sit in a room which was either cold (15-18 C) or warm (22-24 C), and to watch a short film clip of animated chess pieces, which they then described in their own words. The experimenter recorded their responses, according to the abtractness of the language used (using the Linguistic Category Model). Afterwards, the participants used the IOS scale to describe their relation to the experimenter. The statistical analyses showed that those in the warm condition used more concrete terms to describe the animation, and felt closer to the experimenter, than those in the cold condition.

perceptual focus.JPG

Finally, the researchers examined whether temperature would also affect perception of the relationships between objects in a perceptual focus task. 39 more students were recruited, and shown a visual stimulus, such as a triangle made up of three smaller triangles (the target image, right, top). They were then shown two more objects (right, bottom), and asked to judge which was more similar to the first. For the purpose of this task, the target is more similar to the triangle made up of small squares than it is to the square made up of small triangles, because the relationship between the objects is the same, even though their properties are not.

The participants were again allocated to warm and cold groups to perform the task, and shown the chess piece animation afterwards.  In this experiment, participants in the warm condition had a greater relational perspective than those in the cold condition - that is, they tended to judge the triangle made of squares as being more similar to to the target object. And, as in the experiment, they used more concrete language to describe what they had seen in the animated film.

In line with earlier work, this study shows that temperature has a direct effect on social relations. It also shows that temperature affects language and the perception of relationships between inanimate objects. The findings support idea that thought processes are grounded in bodily sensations. Specifically, it provides further evidence that interpersonal relationships - which for most of us are critical in everyday life - are strongly grounded in temperature. Furthermore, the interaction between social cognition and temperature is apparently bi-directional: warmer temperatures induce social proximity, while loneliness makes people feel colder. In terms of brain function, there is evidence that a part of the brain called the insula is involved in processing both psychological and physical warmth. 


Ijzerman H. &, & Semin G.R. (2009). The Thermometer of Social Relations: Mapping Social Proximity on Temperature. Psych. Sci. PMID: 19732385

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Interesting read, thanks.

"The relationship between the objects is the same, even though their properties are not" -- this has to be exactly backwards: surely it should read "the properties of the objects are the same, even though their relationships are not".

(I also don't find it easy to accept that animated chess pieces are social events...)

It should read "the relationship between the objects in the stimuli are the same" - their properties (the small triangles and squares) are arranged in the same way (in a triangle).

Yes, I see ... my brain swapped "triangle made up of small squares" with "square made up of small triangles" as I was reading it, biased I think by my own judgement that the latter is more similar to the target.

This is, of course, a cognitive effect in its own right...