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Stop shivering! It’s making the rest of us cold!

File photo by Craig Lassig
The authors of this study believe their findings suggest that a susceptibility to “temperature contagion” may have evolved among humans as a way of helping us empathize with each other so that we can live together more harmoniously.

Hey, Minnesotans, when it’s cold outside, please keep your shivering to yourself.

For, according to a new study out of Britain, just looking at somebody who’s cold is enough to make the rest of us feel chillier, too.

To conduct the study, researchers at the University of Sussex recruited 36 young men, who were then assigned to watch a short video of an actor either 1) pouring hot, steaming water into a transparent container and then placing a right or left hand into the water or 2) unleashing ice from a plastic bag into a container of water and then placing a hand into the water. (Two additional “control” videos showed the actor’s right or left hand simply resting in the container of water.)

Each of the three-minute videos showed only the actor’s hand. The actor’s face was not visible to ensure that the volunteers were not “reading” any emotional or facial cues.

The temperature in the volunteers’ room was a constant 70 degrees Fahrenheit. While they watched the videos, the volunteers had the skin temperature of both their hands carefully monitored and measured. 

Key findings

The study found that while watching the “cold” videos, the temperature of the volunteers’ hands tended to drop slightly, but significantly, particularly in their left hands — by an average of about 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Interestingly, the “warm” videos elicited no change in the volunteers’ hand temperature. That may be because the steam of the hot water was visible for only a few seconds at the beginning of the “warm” videos, while the ice cubes remained visible throughout the entire length of the “cold” videos, say the study’s authors.

The volunteers also filled out a couple of questionnaires designed to measure their level of empathy for others. The researchers found that the scores on these questionnaires predicted differences in sensitivity to the “cold” videos among the individual volunteers, although those results were a bit mixed.

Helping us empathize?

Despite the less-than-clear correlation between the volunteers’ empathy scores and their automatic physiological responses to someone else’s discomfort, the authors of this study believe the rest of their findings (and other research) suggest that a susceptibility to “temperature contagion” may have evolved among humans as a way of helping us empathize with each other so that we can live together more harmoniously.

Now there’s a warm thought.

The study was published in PLOS ONE, which is an open-access journal, so you can read the study in full on the publication’s website

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