The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Embodied Cognition’

Botoxifying Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 28, 2012

From The Guardian (by Ian Tucker):

Tanya L Chartrand is a pro­fessor of psychology and neu­ro­science at the Duke Uni­versity Fuqua School of Busi­ness in North Car­olina. With David T Neal from the Uni­versity of South­ern California she re­cently pub­lished a paper enti­tled “Embod­ied Emotion Perception: Amplifying and Damp­ening Facial Feedback Modulates Emotional Perception Accuracy”, which found that us­ing Botox – a neu­rotoxin injected into muscles to reduce frown lines – reduces a per­son’s ability to empathise with oth­ers.

It wouldn’t surprise people to hear that it’s diffi­cult to tell what the Botoxed are feel­ing, but your study found that the Botoxed have lit­tle idea what we are feel­ing?

Yes, we always as­sume that you can’t tell what the Botoxed people are feel­ing because their faces are somewhat par­alyzed and can appear frozen, but what is less intuitive is that be­ing injected with Botox impairs their ability to under­stand what oth­er people around you are feel­ing.

To demonstrate this you asked women to look at photographs of people’s eyes and match them to human emotions…

Yes, it’s called the “Reading the mind in the eyes test“, and it’s sometimes giv­en to people on the autism spectrum. The people who had a Botox treat­ment in the pre­vi­ous two weeks were not as accurate as our con­trol group, who had been treated with Restylane – a skin filler – whose results were similar to untreated adults.

Why did you choose a con­trol group who had used filler, rather than a random group?

We wanted to match the two groups on ev­ery­thing we could except that one had the paralys­ing agent and the oth­er hadn’t. The Restylane group are demo­graph­ically similar to the Botox group – in terms of age and gender, socio-eco­nom­ic status, and had the same concerns with looking good. So if we got a random group of people who would nev­er have one of these cosmet­ic procedures then they could differ in a lot of oth­er ways. This way we made sure that we were just isolating the fact that Botox is

the cause.

The study talks about “embod­ied cog­nition” – could you explain?

This is the idea that the way we think and feel is grounded in our bod­ies. The way we under­stand oth­ers’ emotions is to expe­ri­ence those emotions our­selves. We do this with facial micro-mimicry. So if you are winc­ing in pain I im­me­diately do a micro-wince, and that sends signals to my brain that this per­son is expe­ri­enc­ing pain, and by expe­ri­enc­ing it my­self I now under­stand what you are go­ing through.

So Botox messes with our embod­ied cog­nition?

Yes, it’s interfering with that first step, which is mimicking facial ex­pres­sions and that’s what sets the whole thing off. If you can’t mimic some­one’s wince, your brain isn’t go­ing to be sent the same message – that this per­son is expe­ri­enc­ing pain – so you end up not be­ing as accurate and not re­ally under­standing the emotion.

If your empa­thy skills are inhib­ited by Botox what out­comes might that have for your day-to-day life?

My collab­orator, David Neal, was initially inter­ested in looking at the consequences for romantic relation­ships. Say if you’re married, you get Botox and then if you are not able to under­stand whatyour partner is feel­ing any more, it could lead to romantic dissatisfaction. We needed to see the ba­sic ef­fect before looking at some downstream consequences for marital satisfaction. This is maybe what we will study next.

So some­one could have Botox to look better, say for go­ing on dates, but then they find there’s no “connection”…

Absolutely. The irony is that having Botox to look better and be more attractive may make you less attractive in some ways, because you’re not empathis­ing with oth­ers so well.

So are the ben­efits of Botox overrated?

I know there’s been some research showing that Botox can help people who are de­pressed feel better. So I wouldn’t want to say there aren’t some pos­itive ben­efits people gain from feel­ing better about them­selves, feel­ing more attractive, feel­ing younger, but this is one neg­ative to point out to people. Some people will think, “Fine, I’d rather not empathise.” It’s not like Botox makes you completely un­able to under­stand any emotions in oth­ers, but it def­i­nitely reduces your capacity to under­stand those emotions.

The idea for the study came from a paper that said long and happily married couples began to resemble

Related Situationist posts:

The Financial Situation of Empathy

Posted in Embodied Cognition, Emotions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Enclothed Cognition

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 14, 2012

From Miller-McCune:

That’s the implication of a newly published study, which found wearing a white lab coat — a piece of clothing associated with care and attentiveness — improved performance on tests requiring close and sustained attention. Importantly, the effect was not found when the garment in question was identified as a visual artist’s coat.

“The clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves,” Northwestern University scholars Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. While much research has looked at how our wardrobe influences the way we’re perceived, their study examines its impact on our own thinking and behavior.

Adam and Galinsky call this internal dynamic “enclothed cognition.” That’s a play off the term “embodied cognition,” a line of research that examines the ways bodily sensations influence our thoughts and emotions. For instance, a 2010 study found assuming a body position connoting power leads people to feel and act more confident, even raising testosterone levels.

Could wearing items of clothing that have specific symbolic meaning have a similar effect? To test their thesis, the researchers chose a lab coat, since it is “the prototypical attire of scientists and doctors. Wearing a lab coat thus signifies a scientific focus (and conveys) the importance of paying attention to the task at hand and not making errors.”

The first of their series of three experiments featured 58 undergraduates, half of whom wore a disposable white lab coat. (Participants were told their predecessors had worn these jackets during an earlier round of the study to protect their clothing from construction-related dust. They were asked to put on the garments so that everyone took the test under identical conditions.)

Selective attention was measured by a Stroop task, the classic test in which participants are instructed to name the color of a word flashed on a computer screen, while ignoring the word itself.

Twenty of the 50 words were presented in incongruent colors, such as the word “red” spelled out in green letters. On those confusing items, people wearing the lab coats made around half as many errors as their peers.

But a white coat can mean different things to different people. To address that issue, the researchers conducted an experiment featuring 99 students. One-third were asked to wear what was identified as a medical doctor’s coat, while another third wore an identical jacket that was described as the sort of attire worn by a visual artist while he or she is painting.

The others wore their normal clothing, but a coat described as the sort M.D.s wear was displayed on a desk in front of them. As the experiment began, they were asked to write a short essay about the specific, personal meaning such a coat has for them.

All were then asked to complete four visual-search tests that featured two nearly identical pictures placed side by side. There were four minor differences between the two images; participants were instructed to find the discrepancies and write them down as quickly as possible.

Those told they were wearing a doctor’s coat found more differences than those told they were wearing a painter’s coat. Since they all took about the same amount of time to finish the test, the researchers attributed their higher scores to “heightened attention” rather than simple persistence.

So wearing the simple garment focused their minds, but only when it was associated with medicine rather than artistic expression. Those who had looked at and thought about the doctor’s coat, but didn’t actually wear one, scored in between the other two groups.

“The main conclusion that we can draw from the studies is that the influence of wearing a piece of clothing depends on both its symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes,” Adam and Galinsky write. “There seems to be something special about the physical experience of wearing a piece of clothing.”

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Embodied Cognition, Implicit Associations | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Embodied Situation of our Cognitions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 7, 2011

From Scientific American:

Embodied cognition, the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. In sharp contrast is dualism, a theory of mind famously put forth by Rene Descartes in the 17th century when he claimed that “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.” In the proceeding centuries, the notion of the disembodied mind flourished. From it, western thought developed two basic ideas: reason is disembodied because the mind is disembodied and reason is transcendent and universal. However, as George Lakoff and Rafeal Núñez explain:

Cognitive science calls this entire philosophical worldview into serious question on empirical grounds… [the mind] arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experiences. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.

What exactly does this mean? It means that our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world. This is why we say that something is “over our heads” to express the idea that we do not understand; we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. Or why we understand warmth with affection; as infants and children the subjective judgment of affection almost always corresponded with the sensation of warmth, thus giving way to metaphors such as “I’m warming up to her.”

Embodied cognition has a relatively short history. Its intellectual roots date back to early 20th century philosophers Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey and it has only been studied empirically in the last few decades. One of the key figures to empirically study embodiment is University of California at Berkeley professor George Lakoff.

Lakoff was kind enough to field some questions over a recent phone conversation, where I learned about his interesting history first hand. After taking linguistic courses in the 1960s under Chomsky at MIT, where he eventually majored in English and Mathematics, he studied linguistics in grad school at Indiana University. It was a different world back then, he explained, “it was the beginning of computer science and A.I and the idea that thought could be described with formal logic dominated much of philosophical thinking. Turing machines were popular discussion topics, and the brain was widely understood as a digital computational device.” Essentially, the mind was thought of as a computer program separate from the body with the brain as general-purpose hardware.

Chomsky’s theory of language as a series of meaningless symbols fit this paradigm. It was a view of language in which grammar was independent of meaning or communication. In contrast, Lakoff found examples showing that grammar was depended of meaning in 1963. From this observation he constructed a theory called Generative Semantics, which was also disembodied, where logical structures were built into grammar itself.

To be sure, cognitive scientists weren’t dualists like Descartes – they didn’t actually believe that the mind was physically separate from the body – but they didn’t think that the body influenced cognition. And it was during this time – throughout the 60s and 70s -Lakoff realized the flaws of thinking about the mind as a computer and began studying embodiment.

The tipping point came after attending four talks that hinted at embodied language at Berkeley in the summer of 1975. In his words, they forced him to “give up and rethink linguistics and the brain.” This prompted him and a group of colleagues to start cognitive linguistics, which contrary to Chomskyan theory and the entire mind as a computer paradigm, held that “semantics arose from the nature of the body.” Then, in 1978, he “discovered that we think metaphorically,” and spent the next year gathering as many metaphors as he could find.

Many cognitive scientists accepted his work on metaphors though it opposed much of mainstream thought in philosophy and linguistics. He caught a break on January 2nd 1979, when he got a call from Mark Johnson . . . .  What came next was one of the more groundbreaking books in cognitive science. After co-writing a paper for the journal of philosophy in the spring of 1979, Lakoff and Johnson began working on Metaphors We Live By, and managed to finish it three months later.

Their book extensively examined how, when and why we use metaphors. Here are a few examples. We understand control as being UP and being subject to control as being DOWN: We say, “I have control over him,” “I am on top of the situation,” “He’s at the height of his power,” and, “He ranks above me in strength,” “He is under my control,” and “His power is on the decline.” Similarly, we describe love as being a physical force: “I could feel the electricity between us,” “There were sparks,” and “They gravitated to each other immediately.” Some of their examples reflected embodied experience. For example, Happy is Up and Sad is Down, as in “I’m feeling up today,” and “I’m feel down in the dumbs.” These metaphors are based on the physiology of emotions, which researchers such as Paul Eckman have discovered. It’s no surprise, then, that around the world, people who are happy tend to smile and perk up while people who are sad tend to droop.

Metaphors We Live By was a game changer. Not only did it illustrate how prevalent metaphors are in everyday language, it also suggested that a lot of the major tenets of western thought, including the idea that reason is conscious and passionless and that language is separate from the body aside from the organs of speech and hearing, were incorrect. In brief, it demonstrated that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

After Metaphors We Live By was published, embodiment slowly gained momentum in academia. In the 1990s dissertations by Christopher Johnson, Joseph Grady and Srini Narayanan led to a neural theory of primary metaphors. They argued that much of our language comes from physical interactions during the first several years of life, as the Affection is Warmth metaphor illustrated. There are many other examples; we equate up with control and down with being controlled because stronger people and objects tend to control us, and we understand anger metaphorically in terms of heat pressure and loss of physical control because when we are angry our physiology changes e.g., skin temperature increases, heart beat rises and physical control becomes more difficult.

* * *

As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.

The last few years have seen many complementary studies, all of which are grounded in primary experiences:

• Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward while thinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead

• Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft

• Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. Important is Heavy.

• Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity

Studies like these confirm Lakoff’s initial hunch – that our rationality is greatly influenced by our bodies in large part via an extensive system of metaphorical thought. How will the observation that ideas are shaped by the body help us to better understand the brain in the future?

* * *

More.

Related Situationist posts:

 

 

 

Posted in Classic Experiments, Embodied Cognition | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

U Can’t Touch This

Posted by Adam Benforado on July 14, 2011

Look around and you will see countless examples of how we conceptualize luck as following the “logic of contagion”: the star baseball player who refuses to change his socks during his record-breaking hitting streak; the basketball player who takes a shower during halftime of a playoff game after going 0-12 from the field; the students rubbing the foot of a lucky statute on their way to a big exam.

Luck, good or bad, seems to have a certain “stickiness.”

Over the weekend my friend Norbert Schwarz sent me a fascinating new article that he has just published with Alison Jing Xu and Rami Zwick in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that investigates this very phenomenon.  The abstract of the paper appears below:

Many superstitious practices entail the belief that good or bad luck can be “washed away.” Consistent with this belief, participants who recalled (Experiment 1) or experienced (Experiment 2) an episode of bad luck were more willing to take risk after having as opposed to not having washed their hands, whereas participants who recalled or experienced an episode of good luck were less willing to take risk after having as opposed to not having washed their hands. Thus, the psychological effects of physical cleansings extend beyond the domain of moral judgment and are independent of people’s motivation: incidental washing not only removes undesirable traces of the past (such as bad luck) but also desirable ones (such as good luck), which people would rather preserve.

You can check out the whole article, Washing Away Your (Good or Bad) Luck: Physical Cleansing Affects Risk-Taking Behavior, here.

As a fan of Norbert’s work, I’m a bit biased, but it’s a great contribution to the growing embodied cognition literature.

For a recent review of the implications of the field for law and legal theory, click here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Embodied Cognition | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Embodied Situation of Power

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 7, 2010

From LiveScience:

* * *

When suiting up with that “power tie,” you may also want to strike a pose — a power pose, that is. New research indicates that holding a pose that opens up a person’s body and takes up space will alter hormone levels and make the person feel more powerful and more willing to take risks. “These poses actually make you more powerful,” said study researcher Amy C.J. Cuddy, a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School.

The opposite also proved true: Constrictive postures lowered a person’s sense of power and willingness to take risks. Cuddy teaches the results of the study to her students. . . .

* * *

In the study, researchers randomly assigned 42 participants, 26 of them women, to assume and hold a pair of either low- or high-power poses. The high-power posers spent one minute sitting in a chair in front of a desk, with feet resting on it and hands clasped behind the head, and, in the other pose, they stood, leaning forward over a table, with arms out and hands resting on the table. In both poses, the participants took up space, an expression of power not unique to the human world. For example, peacocks fan their tails to attract a mate and chimpanzees bulge their chests to assert their hierarchical rank, the researchers noted.

* * *

The low-power group sat for one minute with their hands clasped on their thighs, legs together, and also stood for one minute with arms folded and legs crossed.

After the subjects had finished their poses, they were given $2 with the option of keeping it or gambling it on the roll of a die. Depending on the outcome, the subjects could double their money or lose it.

Subjects also were asked to rate how “powerful” and “in charge” they felt. The researchers measured hormone levels before and after the poses.

Those who held the high-power poses saw their testosterone increase, while their levels of a stress hormone, cortisol, decreased. Testosterone is associated with dominance and tends to rise before a competition and after a win, but not after a defeat, according to prior research. People in power tend to have lower levels of cortisol. Although cortisol levels can fluctuate in response to challenges, chronically elevated cortisol levels seen among people with low status have been associated with health problems.

The high-power posers were more likely to risk their $2 for the chance to double it: Eighty-six percent took the gamble, compared with 60 percent of the low-power posers. They also reported feeling more powerful and in charge than did the low-power posers.

* * *

Read the whole story at LiveScience.  Image from Flickr.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situational Power of Appearance and Posture,” “The Situational Effects of Hand-Washing,” The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” “The Situation of Trust,” Embodied Rationality,”The Embodied Cognition Bonanza!,”  “The Situation of Body Image,” The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” “Sam Gosling on the Meaning of the Stuff in our Situation,” “The Situation of Touch,” and “The Situation of Hair Color.”

Posted in Distribution, Embodied Cognition | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Touch

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 5, 2010

From Situationist Contributor John Bargh’s ACME Lab:

Sitting in a hard chair can literally turn someone into a hardass. Holding a heavy clipboard leads to weighty decisions. Rubbing rough surfaces makes us prickly. So found researchers studying the interaction between physical touch and social cognition. The experiments included would-be car buyers who, when seated in a cushy chair, were less likely to drive a stiff bargain. The findings don’t just suggest tricks for salesman, but may illuminate how our brains develop.

“The way people understand the world is through physical experiences. The first sense they develop is touch,” said study co-author Josh Ackerman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist. As they grow up, those physical experiences shape how people conceptualize abstract, social experience, he said. “Later on, you can do what we did — trigger different physical experiences, and produce changes in people’s thoughts.”

Published June 24 in Science, the study is the latest addition to a booming field of embodied cognition, which over the last decade has scientifically eroded the notion that mind and body are distinctly separate.

The paper was co-authored by Yale University psychologist [and Situationist Contributor] John Bargh. His group is especially interested in touch, which is one of the first senses to develop.

* * *

You can read more in Wired, Discover, and Boston Observer.  You can also listen to John Bargh interviewed by NPR on Science Friday.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Embodied Rationality,”The Embodied Cognition Bonanza!,” The Embodied Situation of Metaphors,” Our Metaphorical Situation,” The Situation of Metaphors,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will DebatePart I & Part II” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” “The Situation of Snacking,” “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Abstracts, Embodied Cognition, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Embodied Rationality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2010

Barbara Spellman and  Simone Schnall recently posted their fascinating paper, Embodied Rationality, on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

In the last decade, many cognitive and social psychology researchers have been inspired by the notion of “embodied cognition” – that cognition is grounded in actual bodily states, and that cognition takes place in the service of action. Consider two examples: (1) when wearing a backpack people perceive hills to be steeper than when not wearing one; (2) when holding a cup containing a hot drink people rate another person as more warm and friendly than when holding a cup containing a cold drink.

Findings such as these suggest that behavioral law and economics’s emphasis on “irrationality” in decision making could benefit by considering work in embodied cognition. Accordingly, this paper exploits recent research and theory on embodied cognition to find lessons for behavioral law and economics and theories of rationality.

* * *

You can download the paper for free here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Embodied Cognition Bonanza!,” The Embodied Situation of Metaphors,” Our Metaphorical Situation,” The Situation of Metaphors,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will DebatePart I & Part II” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” “The Situation of Snacking,” “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Abstracts, Embodied Cognition | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Embodied Cognition Bonanza!

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 4, 2010

I am excited to be back after a two-month stint guest blogging at Concurring Opinions and I thought I’d jump right in on the matter of “embodied cognition.”

Tuesday morning, I opened up the New York Times to find yet another popular article taking up the topic.  While I continue to be happy to see “embodied cognition fever” catching among the nation’s journalists, I worry ever-so-slightly that the rush to bring the fascinating research to the public may ultimately have negative consequences.

I have been interested in embodied cognition for a while and have had students in my Law and Mind Science course read some of the work in the field the last two years I taught the seminar.  That led me to present some of my thoughts about the implications of the work for law last year at the Childress Lecture at St. Louis University Law School.  The associated article, The Body of the Mind: Embodied Cognition, Law, and Justice is set to be published in the near future and, in the interests of trying to be a better user of SSRN, I’ve finally got around to posting a draft here.

The abstract appears below:

Recent research from embodied cognition strongly contests the dualist notion of the mind as distinct and apart from the biological machine of the body—a conception that has powerfully shaped our laws, legal practices, theories, and institutions for centuries.  According to the embodied (or grounded) cognition perspective, the body is involved in the constitution of the mind.  Thus, beyond our conscious awareness, an abstract concept, like trustworthiness, may be primed by sensorimotor experience, like feeling physical warmth.  This Article introduces recent insights from this budding field, discusses some of the potential implications of experiments in embodied cognition for courtroom interactions, and addresses the significant challenges to using this research as a means to reform.

* * *

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Embodied Situation of Metaphors,” Our Metaphorical Situation,” The Situation of Metaphors,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will DebatePart I & Part II” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” “The Situation of Snacking,” “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Abstracts, Embodied Cognition, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

The Embodied Situation of Metaphors

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 22, 2010

In the current issue of  Observer, the magazine of the Association of Psychological Science, Barbara Isanski and Catherine wrote a great article, “The Body of Knowledge” summarizing the growing field of embodied cognition.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

The cold shoulder. A heavy topic. A heroic white knight. We regularly use concrete, sensory-rich metaphors like these to express abstract ideas and complicated emotions. But a growing body of research is suggesting that these metaphors are more than just colorful literary devices — there may be an underlying neural basis that literally embodies these metaphors. Psychological scientists are giving us more insight into embodied cognition — the notion that the brain circuits responsible for abstract thinking are closely tied to those circuits that analyze and process sensory experiences— and its role in how we think and feel about our world.

APS Fellow and Charter Member Art Glenberg (Arizona State University) says embodiment “provides a counterweight to the prevailing view that cognition is something in the head that is pretty much separate from behavior. We are animals, and so all of our biology and cognition is ultimately directed towards literal action/behavior for survival and reproduction.” And, he adds, “Explicitly recognizing this will help us to develop better theories.”

Cold Hands, Warm Heart

When someone is described as “chilly,” we understand it means “unfriendly” and not that they should put on a sweater. But using low temperature to capture social remoteness is more than just a convention of language. According to a number of studies, there may be a psychological reason for connecting temperature and social relationships.

In a 2008 study, when volunteers were asked to think about a time they felt socially rejected, they described the temperature in the room as being significantly colder than did volunteers who recalled an experience in which they felt socially included, even though the room temperature was actually the same for both groups. In a separate experiment, volunteers played an online version of a ball-tossing game with three other opponents (unbeknownst to the volunteers, they were the sole participants — a computer program controlled the throws). The game was rigged in a way that some of the volunteers never had the ball tossed to them while other volunteers were able to actively participate in the game. After the game, the volunteers were asked to rate the desirability of various foods and beverages. The volunteers who never had a turn in the ball-tossing game (that is, they were excluded) tended to desire soups and hot coffee more than did the volunteers who played a lot in the game. University of Toronto psychological scientists Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli, who conducted these experiments, suggest that the excluded volunteers craved warmer food and drinks because they felt cold (Zhong & Leonardelli, 2008).

The link between social isolation and physical sensations of cold may work in the other direction, too. A study by APS Fellow Gün R. Semin and his Utrecht University colleague Hans IJzerman suggests that temperature can affect how we feel towards others. Volunteers were handed a hot or cold beverage at the start of the experiment and then were asked to think about their relationships with friends and family. The volunteers who had held a warm beverage tended to rate themselves as being closer to the important people in their lives, compared to volunteers who had been given a cold beverage (IJzerman & Semin, 2009).

Cleanliness = Godliness

Just as feeling distant from other people makes us feel cold, feeling immoral makes us feel physically unclean. Shakespeare dramatized this link vividly: Feeling guilty about the murders she had precipitated, Lady Macbeth scrubs her hands as though she literally had blood on them: “Out damn spot, out I say!” Zhong and Katie Liljenquist (Northwestern University) coined the term “the Macbeth effect” to describe people’s increased urge to wash themselves when their morals become threatened — in other words, an attempt to cleanse ourselves of our sins (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006).

A recent study by University of Plymouth psychological scientists Simone Schnall, Jennifer Benton, and Sophie Harvey showed that just thinking about concepts related to cleanliness (words like “washed” and “pure,” for example) can influence moral decisions. When volunteers thought about clean concepts, they considered hypothetical moral transgressions to be more acceptable than did those volunteers who thought about neutral concepts. In a follow-up experiment, volunteers who washed their hands rated a moral dilemma as being less severe than did volunteers who didn’t wash their hands (Schnall, Benton, & Harvey, 2008).

Zhong says that the most surprising finding from the temperature and cleanliness studies “is the reciprocal relationship between physical and psychological experiences that are typically considered independent.” He adds, “Not only that our concrete experience of the physical world (e.g., cleanliness and coldness) can directly impact our conception of higher order, abstract constructs such as morality and social relations, but also that these abstract constructs can alter the way we experience the concrete and physical.”

* * *

You can read the entire article here.  It includes sections summarizing studies suggesting that “colors can be linked to morality,” that “we ‘weigh’ important objects or consider difficult topics to be ‘heavy,'” that “[f]orward movement, weighed down or not, is typically associated with progress or achievement,” that “[w]hen we interact with others, our neural circuitry is engaged in a series of unconscious tasks, including mirroring the other person’s motor movements.”

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Our Metaphorical Situation,” The Situation of Metaphors,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will DebatePart I & Part II” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” “The Situation of Snacking,” “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Embodied Cognition, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 827 other followers

%d bloggers like this: