Our recognition of the link between physical and social warmth is reflected in our language – “a warm smile”, “a cold shoulder” – and has been for centuries: Dante in the Inferno links the betrayal of trust with the punishment of being physically frozen. Yet Bargh and Shalev think this understanding remains largely unconscious. To test this they had participants rate the loneliness of a protagonist after reading one of two near-identical versions of a short story. Participants who read the version in which she took a bath and shower in the same day didn’t perceive her to be any more lonely than those who read the version without the extra bathing.
These findings build on the broader literature on embodied cognition, which has shown the effects of physical states on our thoughts and behaviour, and vice versa (e.g. heavier books are considered more important; washing alleviates guilt). And they add to past research suggesting a specific link between physical and social/emotional warmth. One earlier study found that participants felt socially closer to a researcher when they were tested in a warm room. Other research has linked physical and social warmth to activity in the same brain region – the anterior insular.
But this new study is the first to suggest we subconsciously administer our own tonic of physical warmth to compensate for social rejection. And it’s the first to provide causal evidence that physical warmth can ameliorate feelings of exclusion. Bargh and Shalev speculated their findings could even have practical applications … “the physical-social warmth association may be a boon to the therapeutic treatment of syndromes that are mainly disorders of emotion regulation, such as Borderline Personality Disorder,” they said.