Why Clingy People Feel Colder

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An icy stare may do more than just chill your heart metaphorically — it can literally change the way you perceive ambient temperature, making a room feel several degrees colder. This cooling effect is most pronounced in people who tend to be anxious in their relationships, new research finds.

For the study published in Psychological Science, psychologist Matthew Vess of Ohio University recruited 56 adults online. Participants took a test that examined their so-called attachment style, basically whether they felt comfortable in their relationships with others or whether they were more anxious and avoidant.

Half the group was asked to contemplate a past romantic break-up while the rest were urged to think about an ordinary event that wasn’t emotionally charged. Then, all the participants rated the desirability of various food items: some traditionally warm (like soup, tea or coffee) and some neutral in temperature (crackers or candy bars).

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Participants’ desire for the temperature-neutral foods was not affected by what they had just thought about, whether a break-up or a boring event. But those who were judged to be highly anxious about their relationships had a “pronounced desire for warm refreshments after recalling a romantic break-up,” the authors wrote.

In other words, the thought of losing a love probably made the clingier folks feel colder — physically or socially or both — and in need of warmth. Prior research has also shown that social isolation and loneliness lowers perceived temperature.

A second study of 112 people, all of whom were in long-term relationships, examined whether unconscious hints about coldness would affect their view of their love lives. These suggestions were provided in strings of words — either primarily related to coldness or warmth — that the participants were asked to make into sentences. Questioned later, the study volunteers revealed that they did not actually notice that the sentences mainly had to do with temperature.

Again, only those who had an anxious attachment style were affected by the temperature-related words. When they were primed to think about warmth, they thought more fondly about their relationships, but when encouraged to consider coldness, they expressed less satisfaction with them.

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The authors conclude that anxiously attached people may unconsciously use temperature as a way to manage their anxiety, perhaps seeking physical warmth to soothe themselves. But the strategy could leave them vulnerable to temperature effects when they evaluate their relationships, perhaps feeling more rejected on a cold day and warmer and safer with their partner in front of a roaring fire.

This study is part of a hot (sorry, couldn’t resist) new area of research called embodied cognition, which examines how the physical world — and the metaphors we commonly use that reference it — not only shape our thoughts and feelings, but also reflect hidden literal truths.

For example, the same brain region that monitors our body’s temperature and other internal states (hunger, thirst, etc.) is also involved in our sense of connection with others and whether we feel safe enough to trust them. The region is known as the insula, and one study found that the exact same part of it was activated by physical feelings of coldness and by social rejection.

That may be why we consider nice people to be “warm” and mean ones to be “cold,” why being warm-hearted is a good thing, while cold-heartedness is bad, and why we prefer a warm embrace to a cold shoulder.

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Moreover, these physical-emotional connections aren’t just found in relation to temperature. Previous research has found that potential employers consider job candidates to be more worthy of respect if their resumes are handed to them on a heavier clipboard. This is linked with our view that important matters are “heavier” or “weightier.”

The same study also found that touching a rough material while interacting with others made discussions seem more difficult, while handling smooth material made things feel easier. Similarly, touching hard objects made people see others as more rigid, compared with when they felt soft blankets; sitting on hard chairs made people view a job candidate as less emotional and more stable.

While this research is unsettling in its implications about the myriad physical influences that may operate below conscious awareness to change our behavior, it does also suggest certain strategies. Print your resume on the thickest paper possible, for one, and choose a cozy spot for your first date!

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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