Your mother, metaphors, and other monkey business: How experiences of physical warmth shape how we think about relationships

Peter was a student in his early twenties, and apart from several inconsequential trysts, had spent most of his life alone and indifferent to the world of love and romance. He had, in fact, become so accustomed to this lifestyle that he assumed this would be his fate, and had made peace with the prospects of a cold and lonely existence. This assumption was proven wrong when Peter met Gwen, a girl Peter had chanced to meet in one of his elective courses. Gwen aroused in Peter feelings that he had never experienced before, and he found himself uncharacteristically smitten.

The feelings were immediately mutual, and within days of meeting Peter and Gwen were spending every available minute together, sharing a deep and committed relationship based on trust, passion, and intense warm feelings. Peter found his isolated existence a thing of the past, replaced now with heart-felt intimacy he had thought reserved for romance novels. Blinded by the glow of their love, Peter was almost devastated when Gwen revealed to him that she had slept with his best friend, Harry. She had fallen for Harry now, discarding Peter as if he were an inanimate object. The warmth that Peter once felt for Gwen was instantly extinguished, replaced by the cold shivers of betrayal and loneliness. The devastation that Peter experienced not only returned him to his once chilly and distant self, but also plunged him even further into new depths of coldness.

You yourself might have experienced the same type of overwhelming commitment Peter felt at one time in his life. Conversely, you may at one time have experienced a similar type of betrayal or rejection. Were such feelings accompanied by an immense sense of warmth, or a surge of coldness sweeping over your body? In our story, we related Peter’s experiences through linguistic conveniences called metaphors, many of which were expressed in terms of temperature: Warmth when describing affection and psychological closeness, and coldness when describing loneliness and psychological pain. Metaphors that describe physical experiences, like physical warmth, often reflect very meaningful personal experiences, such as social rejection or interpersonal intimacy. But how do we come to express ourselves in such metaphors?

In the last decade, social psychology (amongst other disciplines) has focused on how the body may influence how people behave, think, and feel. This seems like a very novel idea – unfortunately it isn’t. One of the fathers of modern psychology, William James (1884), had already proposed that without their bodily components, emotions are essentially non-existent. Though James' claim may have been a bit over the top, his line of reasoning was an important step towards recognizing links between mind and body.

Some of these principles might seem obvious, such as the finding that the expression of a smile can influence how you really feel. Or, that the way you stand influences your attitude on a position (see Briñol, 2009). But how would this work in terms of more complex ideas, like the way you feel about other people? As it turns out, even people who are not professional psychologists posses pretty good intuitions about the relationship between body and mind. We are simply raised with these ideas – perhaps even outside of our conscious awareness. The way we move, the way we learn how to gesture, and even through the way we speak we learn complex body-mind interactions.

The study of language has been instrumental in identifying and discussing body-mind links. Linguists Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1999) in particular have been very influential in elaborating upon these ideas. Simply put, they proposed that people utilize very concrete experiences to understand more complex ideas. The chills, or that warm and fuzzy feeling, may indeed affect the way we feel about others. In order to understand the role of warmth on our relationships, we have put together a research program to investigate the role of physical warmth in people’s social cognition.

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