Thursday, November 19, 2009

Physical Warmth promotes Interpersonal Warmth

In an amusing study by LE Williams and JA Bargh, published in Science in 2008, subjects exposed to warm objects behaved in a manner which was more interpersonally warm. Here is the reference:

In the first experiment described by the authors, subjects in the elevator on the way to the study lab were asked to hold an experimenter's drink cup for a moment, while the experimenter wrote some identifying information down on a clipboard. The experimenter in the elevator did not have knowledge of the study's hypotheses. In the study lab afterward, the subjects were given a brief written description of a person (the same description given to all subjects), and were asked to rate that person in terms of a variety of personality dimensions. The subjects who briefly had held a cup of hot coffee gave personality ratings that were significantly "warmer," compared to the subjects who had held a cup of iced coffee. The ratings for warmth were 4.71 out of 7 for the "hot coffee" group, compared to 4.25 out of 7 for the "iced coffee" group; these differed with a p value of 0.05. "Warmth" in this sense refers to traits such as friendliness, helpfulness, and trustworthiness.

The second experiment was more blinded, in that the experimenters did not know whether the subjects were handling a warm or cold object. This time, subjects were offered a choice of two types of gifts after the experiment: the first type would be for personal use, the second would be a gift for a friend. Those who had handled a warm object were substantially more likely to choose a gift for a friend, rather than for themselves.
Those who had handled a cold object chose a "selfish" gift 75% of the time.
Those who had handled a warm object chose the "selfish" gift 46% of the time.

The authors discuss attachment theory, and suggest that one explanation for these findings, on a neurobiological level, is that the insular cortex in the brain is responsible for processing information about both physical and psychological warmth, therefore the two types of warmth perception may influence each other.

I find this type of cross-sectional social-psychological research fun and a bit lighthearted, but often containing kernels of wisdom.

It would be interesting to do similar studies of this sort, but with different groups of subjects who are stratified according to interpersonal style, depressive symptoms, etc. Perhaps there are subjects who are most sensitive to these environmental effects.

I'm amused and delighted, in any case, that figurative or "metaphorical" warmth seems to match up with literal or physical warmth. A nice meeting of the metaphorical with the literal. Perhaps this is typical of what the brain does.

In any case, this little piece of evidence further supports the recommendation to do sensually pleasing, "warmth-oriented" activities, as part of a regimen for maintaining psychosocial health. There may be something in particular about heat which could be therapeutic. Hot baths are anecdotally helpful for relaxation, pain relief, and to promote deeper sleep. I've encountered a few examples in which people found saunas quite helpful for seasonal depressive symptoms. Maybe a very warm, cozy sweater can be helpful for your mental health, and even have positive effects on others!

Here are references to a few studies showing improvement in insomnia following hot baths: {a 1999 study from the journal Sleep, showing improvements in sleep continuity and more slow-wave sleep earlier in the night, in older females with insomnia who had 40-40.5 °C baths 1.5-2 hours before bedtime} {a 2005 study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry showing improved sleep in elderly people with vascular dementia, following 30 minute baths in 40°C water, 2 hours before bedtime}

A precipitant of some seasonal depression, at least in Canada, may be not only the darkness but the cold. The cold may lead not only to a disinclination to go outside, but also to a less generous or a "colder" interpersonal stance, which would further perpetuate a depressive cycle. This is another reason to heed that advice mothers often give young children, to dress warmly in the winter.

Here is a link to the abstract of a study from Japan, published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2005:

In this study, mildly depressed subjects were randomized to receive one of two treatments, 5 days per week, for 4 weeks, in addition to daily physical and occupational therapy:
1) "thermal therapy" in a 60 °C sauna for 15 minutes, followed by 30 minutes wrapped in a blanket, in a 28 °C room.
2) "non-thermal therapy" of 45 minutes in a 24°C room

The thermal therapy group had a 33% reduction in psychological symptoms, compared to a 14% reduction in the non-thermal therapy group.
The thermal group had a 42% reduction in somatic complaints, compared to an 8% reduction in the non-thermal group.

The research literature on this subject is quite limited, but there is some evidence that warmth--physical and psychological--is therapeutic!


Anonymous said...

I wonder if the responsiveness of the subjects (toward the hot or cold temperature exposure) has anything to do with attachment style as children.

Just to give a brief overview:
Mary Ainsworth divided attachment styles in children into three types.


These were thought to develop because of different levels of parent responsiveness and sensitivity to their infants.

For example Secure attachment is defined by consistent parental responsiveness and sensitivity while Anxious/Ambivalent represents inconsistent parental responsiveness and sensitivity.
Lastly Avoidant represents consistent parental non responsiveness and insensitivity.

These types can be coded for in her "strange situation method" lab experiment. She codes childrens' behavior by 1) their response to a stranger in the presence of their mother, 2) their response to their mother leaving the child there with the stranger, and 3) their response once their mother returns.

Ainsworth was testing separation anxiety and stranger anxiety.

To sum up her findings.
Secure children: were not distressed when the stranger entered, were distressed when mom left and when the parent came back they were calmed.

Anxious/Ambivalent children: were distressed when stranger entered, were distressed when parent left, and were not calmed by mom when she came back.

Avoidant children: were not distressed when stranger entered, were not distressed when mom left, and actively avoided the parent when they came back.

Anyway--- Leading back to this research that you presented, perhaps the amount of responsiveness to temperature has to do with attachment style. (ie. the most securely attached kids were the most responsive adults in this experiment followed by anxious/ambivalent and then by avoidant. )

This lead me to think about two other things:

Perhaps physical closeness such as:
1)"Kangaroo Care"
2)"touch/softness" (illustrated by Harlow and Zimmerman's experiments on monkeys reared with surrogate mothers)

in infancy could play an important role in the responsiveness of adults to different temperatures.

Obviously all these experiments have flaws and limitations and I can imagine testing these ideas would be very difficult if not near impossible.

But it is fun to just ponder....

Also this ties in to your other post on self parenting. You may want to be consistently responsive and sensitive in order to have an "inner child" who is securely attached.

GK said...

Thanks for the comment.

Yes, I think "attachment style" is a useful framework to understand responsiveness to stimuli of various sorts, in children and in adults--whether it be to sensory stimuli or to relationship dynamics.

It is important to consider that some models of attachment style may have overestimated the impact of the parent; such was the prevailing psychological model of much of the 20th century.

The work of psychologists and behavioral geneticists has established that inherited temperamental traits are extremely important--these same traits may be present in both parent and biological child, hence creating a spurious conclusion that the parent is causing the child's behaviour. Jerome Kagan has done a lot of longitudinal work, over decades, following infants who appeared anxious/avoidant/slow to warm up, etc. and assessing them as they grew up.

Yet, it is undoubtedly true -- and Kagan would certainly agree -- that if a child is ambivalent or avoidant, then that child has a particular need for warm, responsive parenting, in order to be healthy.

As an adult, if there are problems with attachment, then warm, responsive self-parenting, as well as warm, responsive relationships with others, are undoubtedly important to grow and to regain psychosocial health.

Part of Harlow's experiments implied this as well, when some of the monkeys were given therapeutic peers, allowing them to recover.

Anonymous said...
Heat Wave Psychology

Very cool.

Or Hot?