There is a lot of pressure to impress your romantic partner with a fabulous Valentine’s Day date (I should know – Valentine’s Day is also my wife’s birthday!). If you decide to go to a fancy restaurant, how do you know which cuisine to choose? Should you go with spicy Thai or cold sushi? If you’re going to buy your partner a gift, do you choose something practical and imminently useful but unromantic (the Science of Relationships book?) or should you instead go with something useless but romantic (a stuffed teddy bear holding a satin pillow shaped like a heart with “Valentine’s Without You Would be Un-Bear-able” written on it?). Or, if you’re going to get your sweetie something, well, sweet, should you choose the heart-shaped box of chocolates that is the candy equivalent of Russian Roulette or should you buy some specialty hot cocoa?
Thankfully, embodied cognition is here to help! As I have described in previous articles (here, here, and here), embodied cognition refers to the finding that the mere experience of certain physical states can activate a related psychological state due to the strong association between physical and psychological states. For example, because we smile when we are happy, simply forcing yourself to smile sends a message back to your brain that the “smiling muscles” in your face are contracting. Your brain then interprets this as you experiencing happiness.1 Importantly, these associations between physical and psychological states are primarily unconscious (i.e., we’re not aware of them).2 As a result, you can put this science to good use and win over your partner without him or her even knowing what’s going on! Here are a few tips that you can use when crafting your perfect Valentine’s Day:
1. Want your partner to think your gift is important? Make sure it’s heavy!
That’s right, H. E. A. V. Y. And I don’t mean emotionally draining or depressing – I mean physically heavy. Why heavy? Well, it turns out that important objects are perceived to be heavy, and vice versa. In one set of studies, when participants were led to believe a textbook was important (i.e., they were told "it’s a rather important book” that is frequently used by students), they perceived it as weighing more than if they were not told anything about the book’s importance.3 This may sound crazy, but think about it this way: When you got your new iPhone (which obviously is important), weren’t you surprised at how little it weighed? Your surprise may have been because you expected it to weigh more because it was so important (and expensive) to you. In another set of studies, when research participants were randomly assigned to hold either a heavy clipboard or a light clipboard, the “heavy-clipboard” participants later placed greater value on foreign currencies.4 That is, participants in the “heavy-clipboard” condition believed it would take more Euros to “buy” the corresponding amount of yen than if they were in the “light-clipboard” condition. So if you’re torn between getting your partner a gift that weighs two pounds and one that weighs 10 pounds, go with the 10 pound gift. Your partner will view the gift as important, and will likely think you put a lot of thought and effort into it. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying you should simply get your partner a bag of bricks. Unless it just so happens that your partner has a particular affinity for bricks. That sure would be convenient.
(True story: One Valentine’s Day, I got my girlfriend a set of hand weights that she had been really wanting to use when she exercised. Altogether, the dumbbells weighed about 15 pounds. She loved the gift, and a few years later she became my wife. Thank you, science!)
2. Hot Food & Drink = Hot Valentine’s Day
For that special Valentine’s Day, choose your dinner plans carefully. Specifically, make sure the food and drinks are warm! Why? Individuals perceive others to be more interpersonally warm immediately after having experienced physical warmth.5 In a now-classic study, researchers had participants hold either a hot cup of coffee or a cold cup of coffee and then rate how much they liked another person. Participants who held the warm cup of coffee (which in turn would have warmed their hands up slightly) perceived the other target person as more interpersonally warm than those holding a cold cup of coffee (which would have made their hands colder). Don’t have a heater? A new study found that spicy flavors – such as chewing cinnamon-flavored gum – was all it took to activate psychological concepts of warmth.6 These findings are so simple – all you need to remember is “warm is good, cold is bad.” So, if your partner eats warm and spicy foods, he or she will likely perceive you as being nicer and “warmer.”
3. Slowly Turn Up the Heat
Cold weather is the enemy of the perfect Valentine’s Day celebration. If this bad stroke of misfortune befalls you, you should make sure to warm it up any way you can. Not only does physical coldness lead us to view others as more interpersonally cold, it also leads us to feel less connected to others. In fact, when people are shunned by others, they actually feel colder.7 Coincidentally, this may be why being rejected is called “getting the cold shoulder.” Additionally, when people are lonely, they tend to seek out physical warmth. In fact, lonely people tend to take more warm baths and showers than their non-lonely counterparts.8 You certainly don’t want your partner to feel lonely on what should be one of the more romantic days of the year, so you should make every effort to ensure that they don’t experience any coldness toward the tail end of your date.
However, if you were feeling manipulative and wanted to harness the power of science, you could escape the cold of winter and take your partner on an amazing warm and tropical vacation. Alternately, you could structure your Valentine's Day date so that things start off cold and then gradually warm up. If you’re driving, pick your date up in an ice-cold car, but then gradually increase the heat on the drive to dinner. Or maybe you first take your date ice skating before going to a warm and cozy coffee shop. Your partner may begin the evening feeling lonely, but if you turn up the temperature during the night he or she will feel connected by night’s end. Conveniently, because your partner is unlikely to pick up on the unconscious processes at play, the only plausible explanation for your partner’s getting over his or her loneliness is that you are awesome.
So let’s recap. Heavy gifts, spicy food, hot coffee, and an increasingly warm environment are your pathway to the perfect Valentine’s Day date. Although this advice may seem calculated and cold (pun intended), it is also likely to be effective. And if you’re foolish enough to have your first date on Valentine’s Day, pay close attention to whether your date is complaining of how cold it is in the room. This may be a sign that you aren’t connecting as well as you had hoped!
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1Strack, 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.
2Niedenthal, 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.
3Schneider, I. K., Rutjens, B. T., Jostmann, N. B., & Lakens, D. (2011). Weighty matters: Importance literally feels heavy. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 474-478.
4Jostmann, N. B., Lakens, D., & Schubert, T. W. (2009). Weight as an embodiment of importance. Psychological Science, 20, 1169-1174.
5Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322, 606-607
6Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., Ciarocco, N. J., & Gately, E. L. (2012). The effect of embodied temperature on perceptions of global warming. Current Psychology, 9, 318-324.
7Zhong, C., & Leonardelli, G. J. (2008). Cold and lonely: Does social exclusion literally feel cold? Psychological Science, 19, 838-842.
8Bargh, J. A., & Shalev, I. (2012). The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily life. Emotion, 12, 154-162.
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.