Friday, October 03, 2008

Social psychology: "Only the lonely"? Yes, abstract concepts can indeed generate physical sensations - for better or worse

In Scientific American's Mind Matters, Jonah Lehrer interviews the University of Toronto's Chen-Bo Zhong on how mental states can create physical sensations (Metaphors of the Mind: why Loneliness Feels Cold and Sins Feel Dirty, September 25, 2008).

Zhong had demonstrated that when people are excluded from a group they feel colder. They believe that a room is colder and they prefer hot coffee and soup to cold food. When Lehrer asked him how he had got interested in this line of research, he explained,

I came across this popular 1970s song on YouTube called Lonely This Christmas written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. It goes, “It'll be lonely this Christmas, lonely and cold, it'll be cold so cold, without you to hold.” It just occurred to me that maybe what the song describes is more than a metaphor but a real psychological connection between loneliness and coldness. This research is consistent with recent theories on embodied cognition as well as general research on the connection between mind and body.

Another connection he studies is the link between washing one's hands and relieving oneself of moral guilt.

(Pontius Pilate and Lady MacBeth, please check your mail.)

He warns, however, that
... physical cleansing may actually be effective in mentally getting rid of moral sins. In another study, in which participants who recalled unethical behaviors were either given a chance to cleanse their hands or not, we found that washing hands not only assuaged moral emotions such as guilt and regret but also reduced participants’ willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering Thus physical washing can actually wash away sins. Perhaps this effect is why most world religions practice some form of washing rituals to purify souls. We should be cautious, however, knowing that if our sins are so easily “washed away” we might not be as motivated to engage in actual compensatory behaviors to make up for our mistakes.
Interesting! Of course, A more useful goal than "compensatory behaviors" is "Strive to become someone who does not hurt others." Rituals can help us achieve that to the extent that they keep our worthy goals before us.


Pontius Pilate: When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" (Matthew 27:24, NIV)

Lady MacBeth: Lady M. Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh! (MacBeth, Act V Scene I)

And here's Only the Lonely, if you can stand it. (I find it a tad schmaltzy and would be more likely to reach for ear plugs than a sweater, but to each their own.