Feeling Cold? Maybe You're Lonely

Social Isolation Makes People Feel Colder, Seek Warmth

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 16, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 16, 2008 -- Feeling cold? Maybe you're lonely.

Social isolation makes people feel physically cold, find University of Toronto psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong, PhD, and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli, PhD.

Moreover, they find that making people feel left out makes them more likely to choose hot soup or coffee over warm or room-temperature foods and beverages.

"It's striking that people preferred hot coffee and soup more when socially excluded," Leonardelli says in a news release. "Our research suggests that warm chicken soup may be a literal coping mechanism for social isolation."

Zhong and Leonardelli performed two experiments on college students.

First, they divided 65 students into two groups. They asked the first group to recall a time when others left them out. The second group recalled a time when they were included by others. In the middle of this, purportedly in response to maintenance staff, they were asked to estimate the temperature of the room.

The room temperature was always the same. But the students' guesses ranged from 53 degrees to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. And those who remembered feeling lonely guessed lower temperatures than those who remembered feeling social support.

In the second experiment, the researchers had 52 students play a computerized ball-toss game. The students thought they were playing with other people online, but the game was rigged.

Half the students got a couple of balls tossed their way. Then they were left out as what they thought were other players kept 30 more throws to themselves. The other half of the students got just as many balls tossed their way as the other "players."

Later, after completing a meaningless marketing survey to throw them off track, the students were asked how much they wanted five different products: hot coffee, hot soup, an apple, crackers, or an ice-cold Coke.

You guessed it: Students excluded from the game wanted the soup or the coffee more than those who got to play with others.

The point, Zhong and Leonardelli suggest, is that what we feel emotionally, what we feel physically, and what we think are all tied together. Thus, feeling cold appears to be part of the human experience of social rejection.

And social rejection doesn't just feel cold and bad. Loneliness is known to induce anxiety and depression, and it activates brain areas linked to the experience of physical pain.

Metaphor is a figure of speech -- such as "Success is lonely and cold" -- in which one thing is said to be another, even though the two aren't literally the same. "Metaphors are not just language that people use to communicate," Zhong and Leonardelli suggest. "Metaphors are fundamental vessels through which people understand and experience the world around them."

Pointing to the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, they suggest that "eating warm soup may be a literal coping mechanism for social exclusion."

The Zhong/Leonardelli study appears in the September issue of Psychological Science.

Show Sources


Zhong, C.-B. and Leonardelli, G.J. Psychological Science, September 2008; manuscript received ahead of print.

News release, Association for Psychological Science.

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