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

Because social connections are so fundamentally important to people, social psychologists have proposed that interpersonal warmth is the most important dimension on how we judge people (Asch, 1946; Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007). It is thus only natural that interpersonal warmth has been the focus of research investigating metaphoric structuring. A couple of years ago, Lawrence Williams and John Bargh (2008) wanted to test the link between physical and psychological warmth. In keeping with the hypothesized link between psychological and physiological warmth, people that had just held a cup of warm coffee (versus a cup of iced coffee) judged a third person as more sociable and more affectionate – entirely indicative of a warm personality! In a follow-up study, Williams and Bargh even found that people became more generous after having a warm gel pack placed on their neck. And indeed, these effects reflect something about how we learn relationships: Young children show similar effects, but only if they are securely attached (IJzerman, Karremans, Thomsen, & Schubert, in press). These ideas have been elaborated on since – but may go beyond conceptual metaphors.

Our Thoughts: Just Monkey Business?

In recent years, we have conducted a number of studies to test how physical warmth may influence people’s psyche. Our findings indicate that in addition to affecting judgements of others and generosity, physical warmth is associated with a broader array of effects. When we put our participants in a warm room, they judged the experimenter they had just interacted with as being psychologically closer. We tested this through a pictorial scale, in which one circle represents the participant and the other the experimenter – through an oft-used measurement in research on relationships (see e.g., Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1991; Gunz, 2008; and the illustration below).

In addition to this, we even found that a warm room also lead to participants using more verbs (as compared to adjectives; Peter kisses Gwen, for example, illustrates their relationships, whereas Peter is a loving partner does not) and adopting a relational perceptual focus (seeing the relationship between objects, rather than the properties; for an example, see the figure below, choice A). The findings from these studies provide strong support that physiological states are linked to social concepts.

article author(s)