Some of the most common metaphors present in English language use temperature as way of describing events in interesting ways:
· She has a warm personality.
· I am boiling mad.
· Chill out!
· I was frozen with fear.
· What an icy stare he has.
When people form first impressions of each other the warm/cold dimension of an individual’s personality is one of first things we take notice of (Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007). Having a warm personality is generally considered to be indicative of helpfulness, trustworthiness, and friendliness while cold personality is perceived as person being a potential enemy who might interfere with one’s self interests (Willis & Todorov, 2006).
Using physical features of the world as a tool to describe our experiences and abstract concepts is something that we automatically do in our everyday existence. But how far can we take this line of reasoning? When we say a person has a warm personality, are we at all interested in an individual’s actual physical warmth or is this warm/cold personality stuff just a product of metaphors that we are so used to. There are a number of research studies that suggest the former to be the case.
One of the classic studies demonstrating relationship between physical warmth and psychological warmth comes from Harlow and Zimmerman (1959) who showed that macaque monkeys preferred to stay close with a cloth (warm because of a l00-W bulb) surrogate mother more than a wire mother. This preference was maintained by infant macaque monkeys even when the wire mother was the source of food and the cloth mother was not.
For Williams and Bargh (2008), researchers at University of Colorado and Yale University, the connection between physical and psychological temperature is so strong that simply touching something warm or cold beforehand may influence our judgments about how psychologically warm or cold a person is. This hypothesis was tested in a study where a single experimenter holding a cup of hot coffee or iced coffee in one hand and a clipboard in the other met 41 participants individually in the lobby of a building. While riding the elevator to 4th floor the experimenter asked the participant to briefly hold either hot cup or cold cup of coffee while she wrote down the name of the participant on the clipboard.
After arriving at the 4th floor all participants were given a questionnaire that asked them to read a brief description of a fictional person and then judge the fictional individual’s personality on a number of traits. It was hypothesized that participants who were requested to hold a hot cup of coffee would judge the fictional person’s personality to be warmer than participants who held a cold cup of coffee.
The results of the study amazingly confirmed the hypothesis as merely holding a warm or cold cup of coffee for a few moments made a difference in how warm or cold participants judged a fictional person’s personality to be. This was not a general mood effect where participants in warm coffee condition considered the fictional person’s personality to be nicer. Only the personality traits that were related to interpersonal warmth were affected by warm/cold cup manipulation. Furthermore, the participants did not show any awareness of the fact that the temperature of cup of coffee they were asked to hold had an influence over their judgments.
The metaphors that we live by don’t just exist because of linguistic playfulness but also because they enable us to connect the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, and similar with dissimilar. Just how much metaphors condition our psyche to a particular way of thinking and the exact processes behind it is a research program that cognitive scientists have just started to partake in.
Fiske, S.T., Cuddy, A.J., & Glick, P. (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 7-83.
Harlow, H.F., & Zimmerman, R.R. (1959). Affectional responses in the infant monkey. Science, 130, 421-432.
Williams, L.E., & Bargh, J.A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322, 606-607.
Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science, 2006, 7, 592-598.