Friday, October 10, 2008

The Chill of Loneliness

I enjoy reading journal articles not only because they teach me so much, but also because I admire the cleverness of the researchers in how they design their research. One such article that hit me recently was published in the journal Psychological Science. Authors Drs. Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli from the University of Toronto studied the relationship between emotions and body temperature.

They wondered if there was a relationship between body temperature and such painful emotions as loneliness, despair and sadness. Their interest was aroused by the phrase often used by people when they are describing their loneliness, the "chill of loneliness." People are not merely exaggerating when they speak of being cold when they are lonely or sad. Drs. Zhong and Leonardelli conducted two experiments to see if there was a relationship between emotions and physical sensations.

The first experiment asked one group of people to ponder a time in their lives when they experienced a sense of loneliness. The other group was supposed to think about a past experience when they felt accepted. Then both groups were later asked to estimate the temperature of the room they were in. The group that had thought about acceptance estimated the room to be, on average, 76 degrees. Those who remembered and thought about a time when they were feeling lonely estimated the room temperature to be 71 degrees.

Another, different experiment was done to see if similar results would occur. About 50 people engaged in a computer-based, ball-tossing exercise. Each person would catch a ball and then throw it to anyone they wanted. Over the course of time, most people would expect that everyone would get a ball tossed to them about the same number of times as everyone else.

What the participants didn't know was that the game was designed so that some people would get the ball tossed to them much less often than other members of the group. When the exercise was finished, the participants were then asked to rate the desirability of certain foods: hot coffee, crackers, an ice-cold Coke, an apple, and hot soup.

As you might guess from the results of the first experiment, those who were "ostracized" from the game had more of a desire for the hot coffee or soup. The researchers understood this to mean that a preference for hot liquids was the result of feeling colder because they had been excluded from full participation in a group effort.

So, the next time you feel chilly in a crowd of people, it is probably not your imagination. You may actually be feeling isolated or rejected. If this is the case, you would be wise to think about the cause of the loneliness to see if there is anything you can do. Loneliness is a "healthy" human emotion in that it can move you forward by possibly telling you it is time to learn some new coping skills for loneliness.
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