Metaphors at work: the connection between warm temperature and warm personality

November 28, 2008 | By | 5 Replies More

I’ve previously posted on the work of Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, who have argued that human thought is often metaphorical.  Johnson and Lakoff have used numerous examples of our use of language to demonstrate that human cognition is often a metaphorical extension of sensorimotor experience.

I’ve been collecting experimental demonstrations of these metaphorical extensions; the October 24, 2008 edition of Science (available online only to subscribers) is one of those demonstrations. The article by Lawrence Williams and John Bargh is titled “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth.”

What is interpersonal warmth? According to the authors, it is “a constellation of traits related to perceived favorability of the other person’s intentions toward us, including friendliness, helpfulness, and trustworthiness.” In 1958, Solomon Asch argued that “most abstract and psychological concepts are metaphorically based on concrete physical experiences.” Various embodiment researchers

have noted how objects and events that produce the same quality of affective response are associated (categorized) together in memory. In this way, the feelings of warmth when one holds a hot cup of coffee or takes a warm bath might activate memories of other feelings associated with warmth (trust and comfort), because the early experiences with caretakers who provide warmth, shelter, safety, and nourishment.

Researchers Harry Harlow and John Bowlby had both noticed the importance of physical warmth and contact comfort between mother and child. The authors of the Science article also noted new research that reveals that the insular cortex “is implicated in processing both the physical and the psychological versions of warmth information.

The authors hypothesized that physical warmth could be shown to activate feelings of interpersonal warmth, and that this triggering could be made to occur subconsciously.

As part of their experiment, participants were primed by a confederate who asked them, during an elevator ride up to the fourth floor, to briefly hold the confederate’s cup of either a) hot coffee or b) iced coffee. Following this brief exposure to the cup of liquid, the subjects were given a questionnaire on which they were asked to rate the target person. People who briefly held the hot coffee cup perceived the target person as significantly warmer (on the personality scale) than those subjects who briefly held the iced coffee (P = 0.05).  The authors also conducted other variations of this experiment that yielded similar results.

The authors thus concluded that “experiences of physical temperature per se effect one’s impressions of and prosocial behavior toward other people, without one’s awareness of such influences.”


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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    Wonder why crime goes up during warm weather, then? Maybe it also evokes a "hot" temper?

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: Perhaps there's is a difference between metaphors based on warm and hot. ("He's got a short fuse." "A heated argument." "A fiery temperament").

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Don't get me het up by these metaphors 😉

  4. Erika Price says:

    Erich: that makes sense. I can see a similar difference between cool and cold.

    "Chill out man." "He's cool."

    "She's frigid." "He gave me an icy glare."

    Really, the heat/crime rate link probably has more to do with physiological effects on temperament, but you never know how deeply our cultural metaphors run, I suppose!

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    And now, more evidence that physical experience (such as cold temperature) and social constructs (such as ostracism) are linked.

    See also, this post on the connection between proper morals and cleanliness (the "MacBeth Effect").

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