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Warming up to people: Physical warmth promotes cooperation

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Warming hands over a fireThose with a friendly disposition are often described as warm. Recently published research suggests the link between temperature and trust may be less of an abstract metaphor and more of an actual psychological phenomenon.

“[E]xperiencing physical warmth leads directly to increased feelings of interpersonal warmth and, in turn, to cooperation,” Simon Storey and Lance Workman of Bath Spa University wrote in their study, which appeared in the scientific journal Evolutionary Psychology.

For their study, 60 British students formed pairs and completed two games of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Before the first round, the participants held either a gel-chemical hand warmer or a freezer pack. Before the second round, the participants who had held the warm object held the cold object and vice versa.

Psychologists and others studying behavior have frequently employed the Prisoner’s Dilemma game to investigate cooperation and trust. In the game, two players are given the option to defect against their partner or cooperate with them. If they both cooperate, each partner receives a modest reward. However, if only one partner cooperates, then the defecting participant receives a large reward, while the cooperating person receives nothing. If both partners defect, they each receive a small award.

If a partner hopes to maximize his or her rewards, then that partner should defect. But if both partners follow this strategy, they will end up with less than if they cooperated.

The researchers found that participants were more likely to cooperate after holding a warm object than after holding a cold object.

Previous research uncovered that experiencing physical warmth promoted interpersonal warmth. But Storey and Workman’s study furthered this work by examining whether the association would affect cooperative behavior.

Studies have found a region of the brain called the insula is associated with both interpersonal trust evaluations and the sensation of warmth, providing a possible physiological explanation to the link between physical warmth and interpersonal warmth.

“The discovered effect of temperature priming on cooperation also provides indirect support to the theory that there is a common neurological medium for the perception of physical warmth and interpersonal warmth in the brain,” Storey and Workman explained. “The support is indirect as the experiment did not measure insula activity during the economics trust game, the connection is an assumption based on previous research.”

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