Last year, the psychologists Lawrence Williams and John Bargh gave participants a cup of coffee to hold and showed that the temperature of the coffee affected the way those participants rated a stranger’s character. A hot coffee led them to rate him as more good natured and generous, whilst holding an iced coffee had the opposite effect. The finding was touted as an example of embodied cognition – the idea that the way we think about the world is grounded in, and affected by, physical metaphors. Now Hans Ijzerman and Gun Semin have built on this work, showing not only that the ambient temperature of a room affects how socially close people feel to another, but also the type of language they use and the way they see relations between shapes.
Fifty-two participants were shown an animated film featuring chess pieces. Crucially, half the participants were seated in a cool room (15 to 18 degrees Celsius) whereas the others sat in a warm room (22 to 24 degrees Celsius). Afterwards participants in the warm room used more concrete, physical language to describe the film and reported feeling socially closer to the experimenter than did the participants in a cold room.
Another experiment looked at the effect of room temperature on the way participants perceived similarities between arrays of shapes – particularly whether they would focus on the way the shapes were arranged in relation to each other, as opposed to focusing on their actual shape. This time, participants in a warm room were more likely to recognise the “relational similarity” between objects. For example, when presented with three triangles arranged in a triangular formation, participants in a warm room were more likely to say this arrangement was similar to an array of squares arranged in a triangular formation, rather than to a square formation of triangles.
Taken altogether the findings support the idea that the way we think about relations, whether between people or shapes, is grounded in, and therefore affected by, temperature. It suggests that if you want to encourage a team of people to bond, you should make sure everyone is feeling warm.
These ideas about the embodiment of our thoughts and language have been most powerfully advocated by George Lakoff, the author of Metaphors We Live By. However, before we swallow these ideas hook, line and sinker, so to speak, it’s worth mentioning some reservations spelt out by Steve Pinker in The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.
Pinker points out that whilst metaphors clearly play an important role in language and thought, they are based ultimately on a separate conceptual foundation. This is revealed graphically by our ability to “see through” metaphors (the source of wit as in Steven Wright’s “If the world’s a stage, where is the audience sitting”) and, in the case of the “time-as-space” metaphor, by the existence of brain damaged patients who no longer understand prepositions for space (as in “she’s at her desk”) but do still understand prepositions for time (as in “he daydreamed through the meeting”).
Ijzerman H, & Semin GR (2009). The Thermometer of Social Relations: Mapping Social Proximity on Temperature. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 19732385