Wallowing in the bath, immersed in soothing warm water, the benefits are more than sensuous, they’re social too. That’s according to John Bargh and Idit Shalev, researchers at Yale University, whose new research shows that physical warmth can compensate for social isolation. Indeed, their study suggests that people subconsciously self-comfort against loneliness through the use of warm baths and showers.
Among 51 undergrads, those who reported being more lonely also tended to bath or shower more often, to do so for longer and with warmer water. Overall, 33.5 per cent of the variation in these measures was accounted for by loneliness. A similar result was found for a community sample of 16 women and 25 men. Perhaps lonely people simply have more time to take baths because they go out less, but the association with preferring warmer water is harder to explain away.
A second study confirmed the causal role that physical temperature can play in people’s sense of social warmth. Students conducted what they thought was a product test of a small therapeutic pack, which was either warm or cold. Those who evaluated the cold pack, holding it in their palm, subsequently reported feeling more lonely than those who tested a warm version of the pack.
What about a direct test of the therapeutic benefit of physical warmth? Another study had students recall a time they’d felt socially excluded, then they went on to perform the same product test of a warm or cold pack used before. Recalling being excluded had the expected effect of making students desire friendly company and comforting activities like shopping. But this effect was eradicated if they’d product tested the warm pack. “…Warm physical experiences were found to significantly reduce the distress of social exclusion,” the researchers said.
Our recognition of the link between physical and social warmth is reflected in our language – “a warm smile”, “a cold shoulder” – and has been for centuries: Dante in the Inferno links the betrayal of trust with the punishment of being physically frozen. Yet Bargh and Shalev think this understanding remains largely unconscious. To test this they had participants rate the loneliness of a protagonist after reading one of two near-identical versions of a short story. Participants who read the version in which she took a bath and shower in the same day didn’t perceive her to be any more lonely than those who read the version without the extra bathing.
These findings build on the broader literature on embodied cognition, which has shown the effects of physical states on our thoughts and behaviour, and vice versa (e.g. heavier books are considered more important; washing alleviates guilt). And they add to past research suggesting a specific link between physical and social/emotional warmth. One earlier study found that participants felt socially closer to a researcher when they were tested in a warm room. Other research has linked physical and social warmth to activity in the same brain region – the anterior insular.
But this new study is the first to suggest we subconsciously administer our own tonic of physical warmth to compensate for social rejection. And it’s the first to provide causal evidence that physical warmth can ameliorate feelings of exclusion. Bargh and Shalev speculated their findings could even have practical applications … “the physical-social warmth association may be a boon to the therapeutic treatment of syndromes that are mainly disorders of emotion regulation, such as Borderline Personality Disorder,” they said.
J Bargh, and I Shalev (2011). The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily life. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0023527