Why Do We Say That Someone Is ‘Hot’? Scientists Are Discovering the Primal Links Between Physical Warmth and Our Emotions
What do a chilly reception, a cold-blooded murder, and an icy stare have in common? Each plumbs the bulb of what could be called your social thermometer, exposing our reflexive tendency to conflate social judgments—estimations of another’s trust and intent — with the perception of temperature. Decades of fascinating cross-disciplinary studies have illuminated the surprising speed, pervasiveness and neurobiology of this unconscious mingling of the personal and the thermal.
The blurring of ‘heat’ and ‘greet’ is highlighted in a recent experiment by Ohio University’s Matthew Vess, who asked whether this tendency is influenced by an individual’s sensitivity to relational distress. They found that people high in the psychological attribute called attachment anxiety (a tendency to worry about the proximity and availability of a romantic partner) responded to memories of a relationship breakup with an increased preference for warm-temperature foods over cooler ones: soup over crackers. Subjects low in attachment anxiety — those more temperamentally secure — did not show this “comfort food” effect.
In a related part of the same experiment, subjects were asked to reconstruct jumbled words into sentences that had either cold or warm evocations. (Sentence reconstruction tasks involving specific themes are known to unconsciously influence subsequent behavior.) After being temperature-primed, Vess’s subjects rated their perceptions of their current romantic relationship. As in the first condition, subjects higher in attachment anxiety rated their relationship satisfaction higher when prompted with balmier phrases than with frosty ones.