In “Jealous Guy,” John Lennon described his heart-aching insecurity as “shivering inside.” In “The Rain Song,” Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant bemoaned, “I’ve felt the coldness of my winter.” And in “It Will Be Lonely This Christmas,” the ’70s band Mud crooned desperately, “It’ll be cold, so cold, without you to hold.”
The poets were right about the chill of isolation and rejection — more, perhaps, than even they knew: when a person feels lonely or is being excluded by others, his or her skin literally becomes colder.
For the past several years, our lab has been studying just how people respond to exclusion and other social interactions. In one recent experiment, published earlier this year in the journal Acta Psychologica, we asked dozens of students to participate in a simulated ball-tossing game with computer-generated cartoonlike figures called avatars. While they played, we measured their skin temperature 24 times over the course of the experiment with a device most commonly used for industrial coolers (accurate to within three-hundredths of a degree Celsius).
Research by the Purdue University psychologist Kip Williams, who programs these avatars to refrain from tossing the ball to certain human subjects, has shown that people feel bad when left out. But perhaps more striking is what happens to a person’s body temperature in such scenarios. By the end of our imaginary game of catch, finger temperatures of those whom the avatars excluded dropped by an average 0.378 degrees. (Those who were included experienced no change in temperature.)
How might this work? One likely mechanism is through the autonomic nervous system. Research has shown that things like heart rate, levels of respiration and other involuntary physiological responses are affected by social connectedness. Thus, when people feel excluded, blood vessels at the periphery of the body (in the fingertips, for example) may narrow, preserving core body heat. This classic protective mechanism is known as vasoconstriction.
A number of research groups, including labs in Canada, Poland and our own in the Netherlands, have reported that having the memory of being socially excluded — or just feeling “different” from others in a room — is enough to change our perception of the environment around us. Such feelings can prime individuals to sense, for example, that a room in which they’re standing is significantly colder than it is.
Notably, touching something warm after a feeling of ostracism — like holding a warm cup of coffee — is enough to halt and even reverse some of these autonomic responses. It seems as if the body can be fooled into feeling welcomed by applying a little warmth in the right places. And the effect is reciprocal: studies in our own lab and at Yale have found that adults and young children are more social after they’ve touched something warm.
The findings, of course, don’t just explain why so many lonely souls while away the hours at Starbucks, embracing a warm cup of joe. They have profound psychological implications. Relational models theory, introduced by the anthropologist Alan Fiske, proposes that people engage in just four basic types of relationships. The most ancient of these, evolutionarily speaking, is communal sharing, in which people give according to ability and take according to need (as with a mother and her infant, or between spouses). Communal sharing relationships are typically formed and sustained through acts that connect the physical body, like touching or sharing bodily fluids. And such actions typically involve the sensation of being physically warm — something we instinctively find essential.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding how feeling and memory affect our bodies, and how thermal cues from the environment affect our social interactions. But one thing is clear: humans everywhere connect the notions of warmth with welcoming, and cold with social exclusion. Linguistic links between these conceptual pairings can be found in Dutch, Turkish, Persian, Chinese, Finnish and a host of other languages. These pervasive associations, alongside research findings from studies in children, suggest that such mind-body connections are universal.
For those who dread the cold and lonely holidays, perhaps the recognition of this common human bond will make the season just a trifle more bearable. After all, in the real world, there are few Ebenezer Scrooges — at least in one respect: “External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge,” Dickens tells us. “No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.” The man was lonely, yes. Human? Perhaps not so much.
Hans IJzerman is an assistant professor at Tilburg University’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the Netherlands. Justin Saddlemyer is a doctoral student at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.