Feeling cold is contagious, new research finds

Clay Dubberly, ‘Doah Staff Writer
March 4, 2015

Have you ever felt chilly just by looking at someone that’s cold? You might not have noticed it, but a new study by the University of Sussex seems to confirm that you can develop physical chills just by watching someone that’s a bit frosty.

The temperature of volunteers dropped significantly just by watching videos of people who put their hands in water — a phenomenon known as “temperature contagion.”

Researchers had 36 participants observe eight videos of actors placing their hands in either visibly cold or visibly warm water. Simultaneously, researchers documented the participants hand temperatures. The researchers found that while there was no reaction to the videos of warm temperatures, participants hand temperatures dropped significantly in backlash to the cold videos.

The researchers suggested that the unconscious physiological changes were a human attempt to better empathize with and understand others.

According to Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Neil Harrison, lead researcher of the study, “Mimicking another person is believed to help us create an internal model of their physiological state which we can use to better understand their motivations and how they are feeling.”

“Humans are profoundly social creatures and much of humans’ success results from our ability to work together in complex communities — this would be hard to do if we were not able to rapidly empathize with each other and predict one another’s thoughts, feelings and motivations,” he said.

The contagion phenomenon also applies to yawning, feeling fear or disgust, stress and sometimes unethical behavior.

Harrison and his colleagues explained that “during social interactions, our own physiological responses influence those of others. Synchronization of physiological (and behavioral) responses can facilitate emotional understanding and group coherence.”

He further elaborated, “We think that this is probably because the warm videos were less potent — the only cues that the water was warm was steam at the beginning of the videos and the pink colour of the actor’s hand (whereas blocks of ice were clearly visible throughout the duration of the cold video). There is also some evidence to suggest that people may be more sensitive to others appearing cold than hot.”

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