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Cold temps can make us desire more social contact, study finds

“The current findings also suggest a salve for loneliness brought on by cold temperatures: tactile warmth,” the researchers said.

Winter Kite Festival
The findings support the idea that temperature does indeed influence our desire to be (or not to be) with others.
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband

When we’re feeling cold (and what Minnesotan hasn’t lately?), do we feel a greater urge to hang out with other people?

Some research suggests we do. But, interestingly, research has also shown that tactile warmth — for example, taking a warm bath — can attenuate that desire to be with other people. It may even lessen feelings of loneliness.

Why? Some scientists believe that tactile warmth serves as a kind of psychological substitute for social warmth.

Not all studies have been able to replicate those experiments, however, raising skepticism that the phenomenon exists.

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Two American social scientists — Adam Fay of the State University of New York and Jon Maner of Florida State University — wondered if the conflicting findings were due to differences in ambient temperatures at the time and place where the various studies were done. So they created a study with a different approach. It examined the effects of tactile warmth on the desire for social connectivity across a range of ambient temperatures.

Their findings, published recently in the journal Social Psychology, support the idea that temperature does indeed influence our desire to be (or not to be) with others.

How the study was done

To do their study, Fay and Maner recruited 78 university students (average age: 20) as they passed through busy outdoor campus areas. The ruse students were told was that the researchers were testing a battery-powered back wrap designed to reduce pain. They were asked to wear the wrap over their clothes (but under any jacket) for 30 minutes. The wrap was heated for some of the students (the “intervention” group), but left turned off for the others (the “control” group).

After the 30 minutes, the students filled out a questionnaire on an iPad. It asked them to rate the back wrap on a five-point scale, but it also asked them how likely they were over the next few days to engage in seven social behaviors, such as catching up with an old friend or going to a social event or trying to make a new friend. The point of these questions wasn’t to see if the students would actually follow through with those behaviors, but instead to determine if the participants’ answers were connected in any way with the ambient temperature during the experiment and the tactile warmth (or not) of the heating pad.

The ambient temperature on the days of the experiment ranged from 47 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit.

Key findings

After crunching all the data, Fay and Maner found that people expressed significantly more interest in socializing when asked about it on colder days rather than on warmer days.

That finding supports previous studies that have shown that cold can motivate people to seek social interaction, the researchers say.

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“The psychology of social affiliation may vary meaningfully based on location, as ambient temperatures vary considerably from city to city, and nation to nation,” they write. “An intriguing possibility is that colder climates promote greater feelings of loneliness. Indeed, previous work documents higher levels of social interaction in locales further from the equator, consistent with the possibility that such interaction is a response to loneliness brought on by ambient cold.”

Fay and Maner also found, however, that tactile warmth — wearing a heated back wrap — made the effect of cold temperatures on the desire to socialize all but disappear.

“The current findings also suggest a salve for loneliness brought on by cold temperatures: tactile warmth,” the researchers explain. “Wearing a warm wrap reduced people’s inclination to seek affiliation, consistent with the hypothesis that tactile warmth satisfies, at least temporarily, people’s desire for social closeness.”

Limitations and implications

Although this was the first study to test the effects of tactile warmth on social affiliation in various ambient temperatures, the number of participants involved was small and fairly homogenous (mostly young college students). The results might have been different if a larger, more diverse group of people had been included.

Also, the study didn’t involve a very large temperature range.

Still, the results are interesting — perhaps particularly for Minnesotans and others living in locations where ambient winter temperatures frequently drop below freezing.

But there’s cold and then there’s really, really cold. When ambient temperatures drop too low, the desire to seek out other people might become tempered, Fay and Maner acknowledge.

“Although relatively cool temperatures seem to promote affiliation seeking, frigid temperatures may lead people to prioritize thermoregulation over social affiliation,” they write.

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Which is why the next time Minnesota’s temps fall into single digits, you may, just may, want to stay in and take a warm bath.

FMI:  You’ll find an abstract of the study on Social Psychology’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.