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Surprising Science

Study: Feeling Cold is Contagious

There's a saying: Put a sweater on if your mother feels cold. It may seem silly, but a recent study shows that feeling cold can, indeed, be contagious.

There’s a saying: Put a sweater on if your mother feels cold. It may seem silly, but a recent study shows that feeling cold can be contagious.

Melissa Dahl from NYMag writes on the research, published online on PLOS ONE, led by Neil Harrison, a Neuropsychiatrist from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

Harrison conducted a study where 36 students were shown a three-minute video containing one of four scenes: an actor adding hot water to a clear container and putting a hand in the water; an actor dumping a bag full of ice into a transparent container and placing his right or left hand in the water; or one of two scenes showing an actor placing a hand in water. Only the hand was shown, so the actor didn’t reveal any facial cues as to the temperature of the water.

Researchers measured the temperature of the participants’ hands before and after viewing one of the videos. They found that the participants that watched the actors submerge their hands into the ice water experienced a significant drop in their own corresponding hand. However, no significant change was measured with participants that watch the hot or neutral videos.

In his paper, Harrison puzzles over why the hot water video had no effect. He explains it could be how the video was set up. Participants could see the ice cubes floating in the cold water throughout the three-minute scene, but the steam rising from the hot water was only visible in the beginning of the video. Other than that there were no visible cues that screamed “hot water” in the participants minds. Then again, Harrison offers another possibility in press release:

“There is some evidence to suggest that people may be more sensitive to others appearing cold than hot.”

Why this “temperature contagion” exists could have roots in our ability to empathize with others.

“Humans are profoundly social creatures and much of humans’ success results from our ability to work together in complex communities–this would be hard to do if we were not able to rapidly empathize with each other and predict one another’s thoughts, feelings and motivations.”

Read more at NYMag

Photo Credit: Patty Pattara/Flickr


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