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

After our participants were excluded from this ball-tossing game, the skin temperature of their fingers decreased. In our follow up study, we really found what the importance of physical warmth was to our participants. After participants had held a cup that was physically warmer, the negative feelings they usually feel after exclusion disappeared (IJzerman et al., 2011; see also Bargh & Shalev, 2011). We have interpreted this finding as an attempt of the body to actually adapt to one’s social relations (see also IJzerman & Koole, 2011; for an overview).

Physical Warmth: More than Just a Metaphor

Psychologists (and other scientists) have accumulated a vast array of theory and research that the body plays a significant role in behavior and thought. But, this link is not easy and straightforward. It is tempting to rely on linguistic expressions or basic observations in order to understand how we think and feel. Metaphors may link different concepts and thus give us an enormous amount of information, but metaphors may also merely reflect very basic human experience.When we make people feel more similar, they estimate the room temperature as higher. When we socially exclude them, their skin temperature drops. And, holding a physically warm cup really makes you feel better if you have been rejected. Physical warmth is thus more than just a metaphor; the connection between loving feelings and physical warmth reflects an experience on which we (arguably) rely from birth on in order to know who to trust or who not to trust. These findings indicate strongly that conceptual metaphors extend beyond structures such as time and space, and into more experiential domains, such as interpersonal warmth.So what does this large body of information show us? The recurring theme of this paper has been that thoughts and concepts do not just exist as disembodied ideas, disconnected and separated from our bodies. Instead, the evidence points to a reality in which our physiological states are very much a determinant of, and reaction to, social phenomena. Just as our bodies can influence how we feel about interpersonal situations, so too can interpersonal situations bring about shifts in our bodily states. It is thus obvious that the mind and body are not divorced as was once popular opinion in the social sciences, but instead inextricably linked in such a way that we are able to better experience and understand our social worlds.The way you engage in interaction with others are fundamentally shaped by early mind-body connections. The way one attaches to others are not simply shaped by our thoughts or the concepts from software to hardware. The mannerisms of our hardware are so fundamental to the way we think and feel about others, that the way of the body may change the way we learn to know our world. Thus, in the scenario described in the beginning, Peter might have literally experienced the type of coldness often thought to be reserved for metaphor; a physical response to the depth in which his social world plunged him. However, all is not necessarily lost for our protagonist: The effect is not unidirectional and the simulations described in this paper could similarly work to imbue him with the warmth of new, less damaging, romantic relationships.


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