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'Cold and lonely' go together -- literally

September 20, 2008|Denise Gellene | Times Staff Writer

Social isolation is often described as "cold and lonely" -- but does it actually feel cold?

New research this week says the answer is yes. Just thinking about rejection can make a person perceive a room as chillier, according to a report in the journal Psychological Science.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto, also found that people who felt isolated preferred warm drinks over cold ones -- presumably to make themselves feel better.

The research shows there is a psychological basis behind metaphors linking cold temperatures to feelings of loneliness, despair or sadness, said psychologist and lead author Chen-Bo Zhong.

"Our mind is not independent of our body," he said. "Perceptions we think of as purely cognitive also involve physical perceptions."

The initial experiment involved 65 subjects, divided into two groups. Half were instructed to think about a time when they felt socially isolated, while remaining participants were told to recall a time when they felt accepted.

When asked to estimate the temperature of the room, people assigned to ruminate about rejection on average said 71 degrees -- about 5 degrees cooler than the second group.

In a second experiment, researchers rigged a virtual ball-tossing game so that some of the 52 players would receive the ball only twice. Afterward, subjects were asked to rate their desire for hot coffee, hot soup or an icy Coke.

Subjects who had been all but shut out of the virtual game showed a greater preference for hot liquids than those who were not.

Lawrence E. Williams Jr., an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business who studies temperature and emotion, said the association is believed to have its roots in infancy, when the physical sensation of warmth that comes from being held is connected to being loved. He was not involved in the University of Toronto research.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist at Ohio State University, who also was not involved in the research, said cold might be a physiological reaction to stress caused by social isolation. When people become tense or stressed, their peripheral blood vessels contract, cooling the skin, she said.


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