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The warmth of winter: how we feel shapes how we think

Originally published in Mint

Shilpa Madan 

The prospect of colder weather giving you the blues? Don't blame yourself, blame the science.

Winter is coming (really).

It’s that time of the year, when—as seasons go—we in India are neither here nor there. It’s when more than half of India wakes up expectantly every morning, hoping to feel that “nip" in the air that signals the onset of, arguably, the best season of the year.

Growing up in middle-class north India, winters were synonymous with the softest quilts, the Sunday staple brunch of chhole bhature, polished off with piping hot, melt-in-your-mouth gajrela, followed with a ton of crispy moongfali, and of course, the instant gratification of wrapping hands around a cup of chai.

Apart from its impact on what we wear (cue the soft pashminas and “A" grade wool) and what we eat (think golden, steeped in chashni gulabjamuns or the divine malpua with a generous serving of rabri), cooler temperatures affect how we think and what we do in imperceptible, yet significant ways.

It’s fairly intuitive that how and what we think affects how we feel. In a simple, yet brilliant, study published in Psychological Science in 2010, participants asked to think about the future tended to lean forward while thinking about the past caused them to lean slightly backwards.

Simply put, the mind governs the body. What is less well-known is that this relationship is reciprocal. The idea of the body, or physical sensations that we experience in the world, influencing the mind is not only counter-intuitive, but fascinating. While the research on embodied cognition is fairly recent, this stream of work has shed light on some of the intriguing ways in which our physical sensations shape our thoughts.






The heartwarming cup of tea

One of my most vivid memories of winter is of my mum making tea in the morning and handing over a cup to our helper, who’d left her home at dawn to attend to our home.

This was a daily ritual but the smile that lit up her face when mum handed her the cup of tea was priceless. While I’d like to believe that my mum is the most generous soul, science says that part of the credit belongs to that humble cup of steaming hot tea.

Specifically, research shows that experiences of physical warmth (or coldness) increase the feelings of interpersonal warmth (or coldness) without the protagonist being aware of any such effects.

In a surprising study, published in Science, participants were asked to hold either a cold or hot therapeutic pad, under the pretext of product evaluation. After providing their ratings for the pad, they were asked to choose their reward for participating in the study (either a bottled beverage or a gift voucher for the neighbourhood ice cream shop). The twist was that the participants could either choose a gift for themselves or for their friend.

Participants who had held the hot pad were more likely to choose a gift for their friend, rather than themselves. On the other hand, participants who held on to a cold pad were more likely to pick a treat for themselves, rather than their friends.

As intriguing as it may sound, the underlying explanation is rather simple. Because maintaining closeness to caregivers in early infancy is critical for the survival of our species, a close mental association develops between physical warmth and emotional (psychological) warmth. Neuroscience research provides evidence that the insular cortex is involved in processing both physical and psychological perceptions of warmth.

If incidental exposure to physical warmth can have such an interesting effect on our behaviour, then surely the ambient temperature affects us in unbeknownst ways too?

Compensating for the cold

How cold is truly cold? In her book titled Don’t Take the Last Donut: New Rules of Business Etiquette, Judith Bowman argues that the temperature setting is one of the touchiest subjects in the office environment. But here we are not talking about air-conditioning and thermostat-wrestling, but extreme winter temperatures.

A large scale study of worldwide stock returns, published in the Journal of Banking and Finance, found that cold weather, in comparison to warmer climate, leads to increased aggressiveness and risk-taking, resulting in higher stock market returns.

The effect remained significant even after controlling for other known anomalies in stock market functioning. In a direct consequence of increased appetite for risk-taking, research shows that new, innovative products take off much faster in colder, Scandinavian countries, compared to temperate, Mediterranean geographies.

The effect, however, is not just limited to financial risk-taking; people compensate for the cold in myriad ways. In an effort to “warm it up with love", preference for romantic movies increases with colder temperatures. Specifically, physical coldness activates a desire for emotional (psychological) warmth.

Analyzing movie rental records over a three-year period, researchers found that reduction in temperature was systematically related to a heightened preference for romantic movies. The effect was robust and significant even after controlling for idiosyncratic inclination for romantic movies and the availability and quality of movies in stock. In other words, we tend to compensate for physical coldness by yearning for affection and emotional closeness.

However, if the association between physical and emotional warmth is so strong, then does the absence of the latter affect the former? Specifically, does social exclusion, or being lonely, result in physical coldness?

It’ll be cold so cold, without you to hold

As you may have guessed by now, that indeed is the case. As surprising as it may sound, colloquial expressions such as “giving a cold shoulder" or an “icy stare" imply physical coldness. In other words, social rejection or exclusion literally feels cold.

In an experimental study published in Psychological Science, researchers asked participants to recall and write about an incident in their life when they felt either socially included or excluded. After completing this task, they were asked to estimate the temperature in the lab, ostensibly requested by the lab maintenance staff. Participants who experienced interpersonal coldness (wrote about an incident when they felt socially excluded) estimated the room temperature to be much lower than those who wrote about being socially included and accepted.

In a follow-up study, researchers induced social exclusion by pitting the participant against other people in a virtual ball-tossing exercise. While the participants believed they were playing with other human players, in reality, the computer was controlling the ball throws from the other three players. In the social exclusion condition, participants did not receive the ball after getting it once or twice in the beginning (thus feeling socially excluded from the game).

After the study, participants were asked to indicate their liking for a hot drink (coffee), warm food (hot soup), cold drink (coke), and neutral foods (apple and crackers). Participants who had been socially excluded (did not receive the ball during the ball tossing exercise) indicated greater preference for warm drinks and food.

Metaphors such as “icy stare" and “giving a cold shoulder", thus, are not just tools for communication—they actively shape our experience of the world.


The body and mind are linked in fascinating ways. As the study of embodied cognition develops further, one thing is certain: we are not just about our brain. We crave emotional warmth as physical warmth diminishes. As temperatures outside dips, let this be the reason to keep loved ones close, and indulge in all the delightful, soul-warming treats that winter has to offer (in moderation, of course).

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