You say your feelings are “hurt,” but you don’t mean it feels like you stubbed your toe, right?
You say you get a warm feeling when your fiancé is around, but your body temperature hasn’t gone up, right?
We often use metaphors to express abstract, psychological experiences, but recent research suggests that there might be more than mere wordplay going on. There’s more overlap between the physical and the emotional than you initially thought.
Psychologists have recently discovered many cases of embodiment, which is what happens when physical sensations affect our psychological experience.
Here’s one example—we use the word “warm” to describe people who are generous and caring, but that’s weird, isn’t it? We don’t actually think that the person is warm to the touch, but we still use the metaphor.
In one experiment, people read some information about a person whom they’d never met. Their only job was to form an impression of this person and rate their personality on a handful of traits.
Some of these traits were about how “warm” the person seemed—how generous and caring the person seemed. The other traits were personality characteristics that weren’t related to warmth.
The critical moment, though, happened before the participants thought the experiment started. When they arrived for the study, they were met by a researcher in the lobby, and they rode the elevator to the room where the study would happen. On this elevator ride, the experimenter asked the participant to briefly hold her cup of coffee. Sometimes it was a hot cup of coffee, and sometimes it was an iced coffee. By the time they got to the research room, everyone had given back the coffee cup and was ready to read about the person I described earlier.
The question is: would the coffee cup’s temperature change people’s perception of a warm personality? If you look at people’s responses to the personality questions that weren’t about “warm” traits, the answers weren’t any different between people who held a warm coffee and people who held an iced coffee.
When you look at people’s perceptions of personality warmth, though, the people who had briefly held onto a hot cup of coffee gave higher ratings for “warm” personality traits than the people who had briefly held a cold cup of coffee.
The idea here is that the physical feeling of warmth got people thinking about warmth in general, which biased their perception of this other person. Thus, we can see that metaphors can reflect real links between the physical and the psychological.
For more on embodiment, check out: “10 Mind-Body Connections You Didn’t See Coming.”
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