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Feel the Warmth: Attachment Anxiety and Temperature

Relationships with others are often described in terms of temperature. We can have “hot” romances, “warm” friendships, and encounters with strangers that feel “cold”, and give others the cold shoulder. To the extent that interpersonal feelings coincide with a sense of temperature, an individual with greater sensitivity to relationship dynamics may also have greater sensitivity to physical temperatures. In other words, those who pay more attention to how others express warmth may be attentive to warmth in general, including actual physical warmth. To test this hypothesis, researchers measured attachment anxiety (i.e., how concerned one is with a partner’s availability and responsiveness), then randomly assigned participants to recall a past break-up experience or an everyday event. Next, participants indicated their preference for warm foods (e.g., “soup” “hot tea/coffee,” “warm pie”) and neutral-temperature foods (“potato chips,” “pretzels,” “candy bar”). For those who had just recalled a past break-up, but not those thinking about an everyday event, greater attachment anxiety was associated with greater preference for warm foods (but not for neutral-temperature foods). This indicates that those who are more attuned to attachment signs of interpersonal warmth also preferred warmth in their food choices.  

A follow-up study approached the question in the opposite manner: does thinking about temperature influence individuals’ perceptions of their relationships? Following completing a measure of anxiety, participants completed a sentence unscrambling task that primed or led them to think about either warmth or cold. For example, those in the warmth condition might have seen the following: AT PARK COLD MARISSA THE WAS. The unscrambled version, “MARISSA WAS COLD AT THE PARK”, should lead participants to think of cold. The warmth condition had the same sentence, substituting “WARM” for “COLD.” After unscrambling several of these types of sentences, participants completed measures about their relationships. In the cold condition, greater attachment anxiety was associated with less relationship satisfaction. But in the warmth condition, individuals had higher relationship satisfaction, but only if they had high levels of attachment anxiety. It seems the physical sense of cold reminded people of a lack of interpersonal warmth, which resulted in less satisfaction. However, the warmth seems to have the opposite effect, but only for those who were particularly sensitive to such things (i.e. those with high attachment anxiety). That is, the warmth reminded participants of interpersonal warmth, which increased their satisfaction.

Overall, these studies indicate that those with greater attachment anxiety may make associations between warm temperatures and interpersonal warmth. So for those of you with greater attachment anxiety, the next time you experience interpersonal rejection, you may be better off reaching for some hot chocolate than a cold ice cream sundae. 

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Vess, M. (in press). Warm thoughts: Attachment anxiety and sensitivity to temperature cues. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797611435919

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

image source: thehungrygoddess.com

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