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Out cold. Social isolation can prompt physical feelings of chilliness.

Isolation That Chills to the Bone

Can giving someone the cold shoulder literally give them a cold shoulder? New research suggests so. Volunteers asked to recall being left out of a social group were more likely to rate a room chillier than those who remembered being with friends.

The finding builds on earlier work, which showed that abstract feelings subconsciously influence physical experience. In a study of morality, people who were asked to think about something unethical that they had done, such as shoplifting, were twice as likely to choose an antiseptic wipe versus a pencil as a gift than were people who had thought about performing an ethical act, such as helping a sick friend (ScienceNOW, 7 September 2006). Might a similar link--known as "embodied cognition"--exist between social isolation and a physical feeling of chilliness?

Psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong, who carried out the morality study, and Geoffrey Leonardelli, both of the University of Toronto in Canada, split 65 college students into two groups. The first group was asked to remember a time when they felt left out--for instance, being picked last for a sports team or being friendless the first week of college--and the other group was asked to recall a time when they felt included. Afterward, the researchers asked the participants to guess the room temperature. Those who'd thought of their time as the odd one out gauged the room more than 4° chillier than those who'd remembered being part of a group, the team reports in the September issue of Psychological Science.

In a separate set of experiments, 52 participants played a computer version of toss. The subjects were told they were throwing the ball on the screen to three other players online, when in fact, a computer controlled the other players' moves. The computer passed the ball to one group regularly but ignored members of the other group for most of the game. Afterward, the players were offered a snack. The excluded players sought the comforts of hot soup or coffee--rather than chips or a soda--more than their socially included peers did.

The results convincingly show that feeling the chill of loneliness is more than just a metaphor, says Ozlem Ayduk, a research psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale University, agrees. "What is exciting about this is that even our abstract thoughts are grounded in these more physical, concrete experiences," he says.

The link between cold and social isolation may stem from primal experiences we have as children, Zhong speculates. "When you are a really young infant, the source of warmth comes from the caretaker. So being next to the caretaker brings warmth, whereas if you're rejected from the caretaker you feel cold."

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Posted in Brain & Behavior, Social Sciences