Cold Days Can Make Us Long For Social Contact — But Warming Up Our Bodies Eliminates This Desire

Woman drinking hot tea, heating feet at home.

By Emma Young

From our earliest moments, our awareness of being physically close to someone else is tied up with perceptions of actual warmth. It’s been suggested that this relationship becomes deeply ingrained, with temperature in turn affecting our social perceptions on into adulthood. However, some of the most-publicised results in this field have failed to replicate, leading critics to query whether the relationship really exists.

Now a new paper, published in Social Psychology, provides an apparently compelling explanation for at least some inconsistencies in the results, and supports the idea that our temperature does indeed affect our social judgements.

An earlier study found, for example, that lonelier people take warmer, more frequent baths, presumably to alleviate their loneliness. But the results of replications of this work were mixed — some supported the original findings, while others didn’t.

Adam Fay at the State University of New York and Jon Maner at Florida State University realised that neither the original temperature/social feelings studies, nor the replications, considered the ambient temperature when the research was done. In theory, though, this might affect the results.

So Fay and Maner ran their experiment on days that ranged from 8°C all the way to 28°C, and noted this temperature each time. A pair of research assistants standing in busy areas of a university campus recruited a total of 78 participants for the study, which was ostensibly to test attitudes to a heated back wrap. After the battery-powered wrap was strapped around a participant’s waist, they were asked about the pleasantness of the product, but then also how likely they were, over the next week, to engage in various social behaviours, such as catching up with an old friend or making a phone call to someone they cared about. For some of the participants, the strap wasn’t turned on. For others, it was, and it produced a mild heat.

Asking people how likely they think they are to do something in the future isn’t a great way to explore actual future behaviour. But that wasn’t the point of this study. The researchers just wanted to know whether there was an interplay between the ambient temperature and the heat or absence of heat from the back wrap on the participants’ answers — and there was.

When the back wrap was not switched on, people reported a greater intention to socialise over the next week when questioned on colder days, compared with warmer days. This could be seen as consistent with the idea that feeling cold physically is also perceived as feeling “colder” socially, driving a desire for more contact with other people. When the back wrap was switched on, however, this effect was eliminated, further supporting the link.

The new findings “suggest that seemingly subtle changes in temperature can have important implications for the psychology of social affiliation, and such findings apply in real-world contexts outside the laboratory,” the researchers write.

Interactive effects of tactile warmth and ambient temperature on the search for social affiliation

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest