Research Communications

Psychology studies find connection between interpersonal relationships and physical temperature 

By Jessica Salerno
Oct. 19, 2012

We tend to speak of our relationships in terms of temperature: We feel warmly about our friends and give our enemies the cold shoulder. Now an Ohio University researcher has found that those references aren’t just figures of speech.

A recent study by Matthew Vess, assistant professor of psychology, asked 56 participants whether they felt comfortable or anxious in their relationships. Next, half of the group was asked to think about a romantic breakup while the other was given a nonromantic event to consider. Then both groups were asked to rate the appeal of different foods and drinks that varied in temperature, such as pretzels and hot soup.

As Vess describes in a paper published in the May 2012 issue of Psychological Science, participants who were more anxious in their relationships were more likely to desire warm refreshments when thinking about a breakup than were those who were asked to think about an ordinary event.

 Alix Northrup
Illustration by Alix Northrup.

“It does seem that if you threaten interpersonal intimacy, people try to replace it with physical temperature,” he says.

A second study of 112 people in long-term relationships reinforced these findings. Participants were asked to make a sentence from a random string of words (including some associated with coldness or warmth) and then rated their level of satisfaction in their relationships. Vess found that anxiously attached partners whose sentences focused on coldness were less satisfied with their relationships than who had written warm statements.

“What it suggested to us is that these cues of warmth and things that trigger feelings of warmth directly map onto the type of needs anxiously attached people are trying to get in their relationships,” says Vess. “It actually influences the way they evaluate the romantic relationships they’re in.”

This area of research is known as embodied cognition, which is gaining popularity in the psychology field. Embodied cognition explores how we represent abstract concepts such as love or importance, and how this is grounded in the way we physically interact with the world.

“If you expose people to things dealing with warmth, you might actually activate feelings of love because those two things are linked together in some way,” says Vess.

Vess is interested in questions about human nature and the reasons behind people’s actions.

“The opportunity to figure it out in a way that’s scientific and not just based on illogical assumptions about the way the world works seems fascinating to me,” he says.

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2012 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative work of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students.