The chills are real: Isolation literally does leave one cold
The cold shoulder, frosty manners, chilly reception, icy stare — there’s more to those metaphors than just evocative adjectives.
We really do get cold when we’re lonely and mistreated, at least according to a recent study by a pair of University of Toronto researchers.
“We found that the experience of social exclusion literally feels cold,” said lead author Chen-Bo Zhong, a psychologist at the Rotman School of Management on the campus.
“This may be why people use temperature-related metaphors to describe social inclusion and exclusion,” he said.
The research suggests a remedy perhaps more familiar to Grandma than to a therapist.
“It’s striking that people preferred hot coffee and soup more when socially excluded. Our research suggests that warm chicken soup may be a literal coping mechanism for social isolation,” said coauthor Geoffrey Leonardelli, also a psychologist.
The researchers divided a group of 65 volunteers into two groups, one called upon to recall personal experiences when they were painfully rejected, resulting in loneliness or isolation.
The other group got to bask in the warm and fuzzy memories where they recalled bring comfortably ac- cepted by others.
The volunteers were then asked to estimate the temperature in the room — on the pretense that the building’s maintenance staff needed the information.
The estimate range was 54 de- grees Fahrenheit to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Here’s the interesting part: Those who were told to think about a socially isolating experience gave lower estimates of the temperature.
In other words, the recalled memories of being ostracized actually made people experience the ambient temperature as colder,” Mr. Zhong said.
The fun wasn’t over just yet, though.
With another group of 52 volun- teers, the researchers also rigged a computer game to play favorites and trigger “feelings of exclusion” among a select few using an online catch-and-toss ball game. No one was aware that the electronic partner was designed to pitch the ball at some people many times — while leaving out the rest.
Afterward, the group rated the appeal of certain foods and drinks, including hot coffee, crackers, an ice-cold Coke, an apple, hot soup.
The findings were striking. The “unpopular” volunteers — who had been ostracized during the computer game — were much more likely than the others to want either hot soup or hot coffee.
“Their preference for warm food and drinks presumably resulted from physically feeling cold as a result of being excluded,” the researchers said in their analysis, which was published in the September issue of Psychological Science.
The findings, they concluded, give credence to a new kind of warm-and-fuzzy therapy that uses warm or hot foods and cozy rooms.
It also adds a new dimension to the treatment of seasonal affective disorder, the so-called “winter blues” depression that affects as many as 12 million Americans during the cold months.
Previously, psychologists blamed the state on shorter winter days, often recommending that patients sit under bright lights to compensate.
Mr. Zhong and Mr. Leonardelli suggest that the cold itself makes people depressed.
“Perhaps cold temperatures in the winter serve as a catalyst to the psychological experience of social exclusion,” the researchers concluded.