The social thermometer: Temperature affects how we perceive relationships

LANGUAGE contains many sayings which link our feelings and behaviour towards others to temperature. We might, for example, hold “warm feelings” for somebody, and extend them a “warm welcome”, while giving somebody else “the cold shoulder” or “an icy stare”. Why is that we have so many metaphors which relate temperature to social distance? According to George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, we judge others on the basis of warmth because abstract concepts, such as affection, are firmly grounded in bodily sensations.

There is evidence for Lakoff’s hypothesis, which shows that these sayings are more than just metaphors. Last year, a study by psychologists from the University of Toronto showed that participants who recalled an experience in which they felt socially excluded gave lower estimates of room temperature than participants who recalled a social inclusion experience. Hans Ijzerman and Gün R. Semin of Utrecht University now show that the opposite is also true. In a paper published in Psychological Science, they report that temperature affects the perception of social relations and the language used to describe them.

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Swearing increases pain tolerance

SWEARING occurs in most cultures – people swear to let off steam, or to shock or insult others. It is also a common response to a painful experience. We’ve all done it: after stubbing our toe, or hitting our thumb with a hammer, we draw a sharp breath and mutter a swear word. Until now, though, whether swearing actually alters our perception of pain had not been investigated. But according to a new study due to be published next month in the journal NeuroReport, swearing increases pain tolerance, enabling us to withstand at least one form of pain for longer.

Some pain theorists regard our tendency to swear after hurting ourselves to be a form of “pain-related catastrophising” – an exaggerated negative mind set which is brought to bear during a painful experience. As such, swearing is thought of as a maladaptive response, which contributes to the intensity of the pain and emotional distress. Given that it is such a common response, Richard Stephens and his colleagues at the Keele University School of Psychology set out test the hypothesis that swearing would decrease pain tolerance and increase pain perception.

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