If you go to see a psychotherapist, will you feel more interpersonal warmth from the therapist if the room is warm rather than cool? Probably yes, according to a long line of research starting with Harry Harlow and his motherless monkeys. He found that when monkeys were kept warm while motherless, they were not as socially impaired later as motherless monkeys not kept warm – the monkeys reacted to physical warmth to some extent as they would have to maternal warmth. Later studies with humans show that we react to physical warmth with warm interpersonal feelings toward anyone present. It is as if we interpret the physical warmth as interpersonal warmth from the other person! What is going on? There could be implicit (unconsicous) cognition happening, perhaps with classical conditioning from past pairings of physical and interpersonal warmth. Also, studies have shown that the same areas of the brain are active when a person feels physical warmth and interpersonal warmth, so there could be a biological sharing of reactions to the two types of warmth. Are there any pracitical implications of these findings? Idit Shalev and John Bargh of Yale University, who have studied the phenonenon, suggest that in important interactions, e.g., a first therapy session, keep the temperature up. That could be especially important if there is a contrast with the temperature the person has just experienced, e.g., outdoors. A warm therapy room might help lead the new client to experience feelings of interpersonal warmth. These in turn may help the therapist establish rapport and gain cooperation from the client. Other possible applications: On a first date, go somewhere warm — you may be liked more.
What other possible applications occur to you?
To read more about physical and interpersonal wamth, go to the article by Shalev and Bargh in “Perspectives in Psychological Science,” Vol 6 (No.5), Sept 2011, pp. 488-492.
John Malouff, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology