How Electrocuting Cold Can Make You Selfish

Drop the whimsical holiday songs and chunky sweater ads – The force of frozen air on my face this December morning was electrocuting. I think I saw a fox huddling over a manhole cover like it was a radiator (Public Service Announcement: From now until March, please check under your tires for curled up kittens).

You know what I mean because almost the entire nation has been struck by deadly cold. The temperatures are not going up on a Tuesday.

It’s such a cold Tuesday that #TooColdTuesday is trending …


Going outside like… #TooColdTuesday pic.twitter.com/q2iYBBDhts

— VH1 (@VH1) January 5, 2016

Can you call in frozen to work? #TooColdTuesday pic.twitter.com/6yYEbG7gJO

— JOLLY RANCHER (@Jolly_Rancher) January 5, 2016

So I’m someone who has always had cold appendages. It runs in the family. Even in the climax of summer my feet are freezing and my hands are frigid. And if your extremities are cold like mine, you’re probably familiar with the phrase: “Cold hands, warm heart.”

My grandmother always said this to me to make me feel better about my hands and feet, which shocked adult relatives when I’d slip my toes and fingers under them for comfort. It’s like she was validating my coldness with that phrase. I have such a warm heart (grandma said so) that I can be unabashedly cold about putting my ice cube feet under my mother. My little sister does this to me now, and it’s actually really mean and selfish. So, as it turns out, there’s a science-y explanation for this: Selfish behavior is something that people are more likely to engage in when they’re cold …

Lawrence Williams and John Bargh debunked the saying “cold hands, warm heart”. With their research, they concluded that a person who experiences physical warmth is more likely to exhibit interpersonal warmth, or characteristics we perceive as being favorable. A guest who helps you wash your dishes is someone who you would perceive as helpful. Someone who holds the door open for you might be someone you perceive as friendly. These behaviors and perceptions help you decide whether you should trust someone, do business with them, be friends with them, etc.

And, as it turns out, when you’re warm, you’re more likely to do things that encourage warm perceptions about you. But, when you’re cold, you’re more likely to focus on your own needs.

And it makes sense that you would, from a biological standpoint, tend towards making yourself more comfortable when you’re uncomfortably cold. Harry Harlow’s controversial, but classic experiments with macaques reinforces a biological argument for why individuals seek warmth. It’s really mean what they did to baby macaques in this study, but it happened, and so we know now that the baby macaques preferred the cloth surrogate mother, which was heated, to the wire surrogate that also gave food.

Krystal D’Costa summarizes these findings in her review “A More Social Explanation of ‘Cold Hands, Warm Heart” for Scientific American. She connects Harlow’s research to the Williams and Bargh study:

“In the Williams and Bargh study, research participants who briefly held a hot cup of coffee, were more likely to perceive others as having warmer personality traits than participants who briefly held an iced coffee. And participants who held a hot therapeutic pad were more likely later to choose a reward that they could share with a friend than those who held a cold therapeutic pad.”

As I said before, it makes sense, as Krystal suggests, if you’re exposed to cold, “which can be an uncomfortable state, you may be more inclined to think of yourself.”

On the first, super cold day of the year, we’re all thinking about how we’ll get to warmer climes quickly, whether it means getting in your car and cranking up the heat, dressing in the warmest faux-fur lined jackets and boots that you can find, or taking tropical vacations.

Lucky to have those kinds of options while temperatures drop, a right?

And it looks like we’re headed into an ice age of a winter. The key to being a warmer person this winter means considering the way others might feel who don’t have any of these options.

In Islam, one concept of warmth is a psychological state of being and is synonymous with spiritual health. You get that kind of warmth by engaging in behavior that considers the well being of others, especially when you’re cold. It’s actions that are driven by empathy that’ll warm you up, even on the coldest days.

Evolve. Push back on the automatic behavior that puts your coldness first.

Public Service Announcement: Don’t indulge in your coldness without doing something to warm your heart too.

You Cold?

Share your warmth this winter.