VSL:SCIENCE // The science of cold shoulders

It’s the first day of school, and you’re the new kid in town. The cafeteria’s full of strangers. Who are you eating with? No one.

One of the more interesting aspects of the scene we’ve just described is the metaphorical language people use to get their discomfort across: We talk about icy stares and cold glances. Frosty receptions, the chill of isolation. And so a psychologist at the University of Toronto was inspired to conduct a rather poetic experiment: “Are cold shoulders a figure of speech?” Chen-Bo Zhong wondered. “Or do they actually make us feel cold?” Zhong asked people to remember a snub, a slight, or an awkward social encounter. (Cue: the first day of school.) Next, he asked them to estimate the temperature of the room they were sitting in. (Cue: cold sweats, clammy hands.) Remarkably, it turned out that people thinking about social exclusion believed the room in which the experiment took place was six degrees colder than did people who’d been asked to remember a situation in which they’d been included in a group. Moreover, they were far more likely to prefer, when offered refreshments, hot drinks and snacks — a bowl of soup or a cup of coffee — over cold ones. We’ve revised our etiquette books accordingly: VSL recommends that when dining out alone, you bring a jacket.

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