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Wednesday
Oct102012

Body and Mind: How Seemingly Unrelated Physical Experiences Affect Our Relationships

What if I told you that simply holding a cup of hot coffee leads you to perceive others more positively?  Seems like crazy talk, right? Well, it may not be so crazy after all.

Embodied cognition (also called embodiment) is an emerging research area in psychology. Embodiment is the theory that there is a strong association between physical experiences and psychological states.1,2 Physical experiences “activate” psychological experiences, and vice versa.3 Essentially, this means that when you are happy you smile, but if you smile you will also tend to feel happier. Try something for me – hold a pen between your teeth so that your lips aren’t touching the pen. Notice something? You’re smiling (kind of). Importantly, you are currently using the muscles in your face that are used when you smile. What you’re less aware of, however, is that you may be in a more 'positive' psychological state because you forced yourself to smile. Confirming this possibility, participants who held a pen between their teeth, in turn forcing their “smiling muscles” to contract, rated cartoons more positively than participants who held a pen between their lips (which inhibits the contraction of these muscles).4 Along these lines, sometimes subtly, we tend to nod our head when we agree with someone but shake our heads when we disagree. Interestingly, when individuals are asked to nod their heads during a message (e.g., raising university tuition) they develop more positive attitudes toward that message, compared to when they shake their heads.5 

You may be saying to yourself, “This is cool and all, but what does this have to do with the Science of Relationships?” Well, in order for a relationship to begin, individuals have to feel some level of attraction toward one another. Thus, an important component of attraction is whether you find another person to be nice, kind, generous, and an all-around “warm” person. Because we tend to label people we like as “warm” and those we dislike as “cold” (and physically attractive people as “hot”), researchers questioned whether the physical experience of warm and cold could affect our perceptions of others. Starbucks can help us answer this question. 

In a recent study, researchers had participants briefly hold a warm cup of coffee (think caffè latte) or cold (think Frappuccino) and then rate their overall impression of another person. Participants who held the warm coffee cup rated the target individual as interpersonally “warmer” than participants who held a cold coffee cup!6 (read more about this study here.)

This warm vs. cold effect extended to individuals’ willingness to donate a gift to a friend vs. keeping the gift for themselves. As you may know, research participants are sometimes given some sort of payment for serving as research “guinea pigs.” In this study, participants were given either a bottle of Snapple or a $1 gift certificate to an ice cream shop, then were given the option of keeping the payment for themselves or donating it to a friend.  Participants who held a warm Icy Hot pad were more likely to give the gift to a friend than participants who held a cold Icy Hot pad.6 In yet another study, researchers had some participants sit at wobbly chairs and tables, thereby giving them a sense of instability. When given the opportunity to choose traits they wanted in a romantic partner, participants in wobbly chairs desired more “stable” partners (trustworthy, reliable) than did participants who sat in non-wobbly chairs.(read more about this study here.)

These embodiment effects can actually influence how satisfied we are in our relationships. When romantic partners travel in similar directions and take similar routes to work (for example, they both drive northwest from their house along the same highway), they tend to be happier with their marriages.8 In fact, there is experimental evidence that we tend to like others more when they are walking down the hallway in the same direction as us compared to when they are walking the opposite direction.8 If you’re going my way, then we’re clearly soulmates.

So what should you make of all this? If you’re interested in starting a relationship with someone, you could have them hold a pen between their teeth, hold two cups of hot coffee, and walk east with you down a cobblestone road that has tons of loose stones. This may not be the most conventional way to get someone to like you, but hey, it’s worth a shot!

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1Niedenthal, P. M., Barsalou, L. W., Winkielman, P., Krauth-Gruber, S., & Ric, F. (2005). Embodiment in attitudes, social perception, and emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9, 184-211.

2Landau, M. J., Meier, B. P., Keefer, L. A. (2010). A metaphor-enriched social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 1045-1067.

3Barsalou, L. W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617-645.

4Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1998). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768-777.

5Wells, G. L., & Petty, R. E. (1980). The effects of overt head movement on persuasion: Compatibility and incompatibility of responses. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 1, 219-230.

6Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322, 606-607

7Kille, D. R., Forest, A. L., & Wood, J. V. (in press). Tall, dark, and stable: Embodiment motivates mate selection preferences. Psychological Science.

8Huang, X., Dong, P., Dai, X., & Wyer, R. S., Jr. (2012). Going my way? The benefits of travelling in the same direction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 978-981.

Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.

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