Social Isolation Makes People Cold, Literally

The cold shoulder is more than just a metaphor. A new study found that social isolation can actually make people feel cold.

Researchers wanted to learn just how icy loneliness can get. So two University of Toronto psychologists, Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli, asked some subjects to remember a time when they felt socially excluded, such as being rejected from a club, while others recalled memories of being accepted into a group. Afterward, the researchers asked all the participants to estimate the temperature of the room, telling them this task was unrelated to the previous activity and that the building's maintenance staff simply wanted to know.

While estimates ranged from 54 degrees Fahrenheit to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, in general, those who had been remembering emotionally chilly times also literally felt chillier, even though the room's temperature remained constant during the experiment. People who had recalled feeling ostracized estimated the temperature to be about 71 degrees Fahrenheit, on average. Participants who were remembering the warm, fuzzy feeling of social inclusion felt the room to be a balmy 75 degrees Fahrenheit, on average. The discrepancy is a statistically significant difference, Zhong said.

"We found that the experience of social exclusion literally feels cold," Zhong said. "This may be why people use temperature-related metaphors to describe social inclusion and exclusion."

Loneliness is chilly

In a second experiment, Zhong and Leonardelli had participants play a computer-simulated ball-tossing game in which some people were passed the ball more often than others, so some volunteers felt included and others felt excluded. Afterward, the participants had to rate the appeal of various foods and beverages, such as hot coffee, crackers, an ice-cold Coke, an apple and hot soup.

The unpopular players were much more likely to hanker for warm items such as soup and coffee than those who had just felt socially accepted. The findings imply that participants who had been feeling left out were also literally feeling left out in the cold, and wanted the warm foods to heat them up.

"It's striking that people preferred hot coffee and soup more when socially excluded," Leonardelli said. "Our research suggests that warm chicken soup may be a literal coping mechanism for social isolation."

The study is detailed in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Why the connection?

The researchers speculate that this link between temperature and social inclusion might arise when people are babies.

"For an infant, being closer to a caretaker brings warmth," Zhong said. "When you're a kid, being held by your mother means warmth, and being distant means coldness."

This connection continues throughout life, since when a person is in a room with 10 other people, the ambient temperature is warmer than when in a room alone.

"When we talk about metaphors, they're not just language; they're literally the way we experience the world," Zhong told LiveScience.

This finding fits well with a previous study of Zhong's, in which he asked people to recall a time when they were morally challenged and did something they feel guilty about. Afterward, those people felt a greater need for physical cleansing, such as washing their hands.

"Social experience and physical experience actually overlap to a great extent," Zhong said. Our social perceptions are not always abstract, but include other information such as bodily perception."

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both and Live Science.