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12 December 2016

Contagious Cold: The Science of Sympathy

From an early age, it becomes apparent that something as small as a yawn can start a chain reaction. Anyone who sees the yawn can potentially be affected by the sight, stifling their own reflexive yawns or simply accepting it with a gaping maw all their own. Funny enough, the same theory may apply to feeling cold.

A study conducted by Neil Harrison, a neuropsychiatrist from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, found that seeing someone who looks cold is enough to cause the body temperature to drop a couple degrees. This effect was only seen to transfer cold, not warmth. To come to this conclusion the study, “You Turn Me Cold: Evidence for Temperature Contagion” published in PLOS ONE, tested 36 students.

The test subjects were shown eight three-minute videos of differing scenes:
  • An actor pouring steaming water from a kettle into a clear container before inserting a hand: “warm videos”
  • An actor dumping ice into water held in a clear container before inserting a hand: “cold videos”
  • Two scenes showed an actor inserting a hand into container of regular water: “control videos”
In each of the scenes, only the actor’s hand was visible. No facial cues or body language were shown.

The temperature of the students’ hands was taken before viewing the videos and after. Subjects who watched the second scene – a hand submerged into a container of ice – had a markedly colder temperature reading the second time around. Those who saw scenes with hot or neutral water had no recorded change in temperature. However, Harrison believes that the lack of temperature contagion for the warm videos may be due to the presentation as steam, indicating heat, was only visible at the beginning of the video. In contrast, the video where the actor emptied ice into a container clearly showed ice cubes floating in water, invoking a sense of cold for the entire viewing.

Another suggested reason for the lack of temperature contagion for warm videos, “There is also some evidence to suggest that people may be more sensitive to others appearing cold than hot,” says Harrison.

In a press release, Harrison explores the science behind this reaction: “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.” 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).