Unable to Grasp Alternative Viewpoints? Chill Out.

New research suggests cool temperatures help us grasp the fact that not everyone has the same information that we possess.
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Perspective: Get some. (PHOTO: MOOLKUM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Perspective: Get some. (PHOTO: MOOLKUM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Having trouble coming to terms with a contrary colleague or disgruntled member of the family? Do you just seem to be talking past one another?

Your first impulse might be to sit down and talk things out over a cup of coffee. Bad idea.

Newly published research suggests warm temperatures inhibit our ability to get beyond our own egocentric perspective and see things from a different point of view.

“We show that perspective-taking is enhanced when participants are exposed to cooler rather than warmer temperature cues,” writes a research team led by Claudia Sassenrath of the University of Ulm in Germany. Its study is published in the journal Acta Psychologica.

“We show that perspective-taking is enhanced when participants are exposed to cooler rather than warmer temperature cues.”

Sassenrath and her colleagues describe two experiments. The first featured 81 undergraduates who were asked to evaluate a cup filled with water. For half, the water was warm; for the rest, it was cold. After completing this task, they read a series of short fictional stories, all of which featured the same main character. In the process, they learned that this character’s “written messages to a certain target character were not meant (to be taken) seriously.” That bit of news was unknown to the target character.

Afterwards, they were asked whether or not the target character would interpret the main character’s message as serious. Participants who had evaluated the cup holding cold water were more likely to give the correct answer—yes. Those who were exposed to warm water had more trouble seeing things from the target character’s perspective, and were more likely to answer based on their own knowledge.

The second study, featuring 76 undergraduates, was similarly structured, but it featured a different fictional scenario.

In this case, those who had evaluated the warm-water cup were more likely to report that a girl looking for her missing violin would check out a container in which another girl had hidden it. They had seen the second girl place it there while the first girl was outside playing, but they apparently assumed the young violinist somehow shared their “privileged information.”

Why this confusion? According to Sassenrath and her colleagues, “Individuals often start with their own point of view when taking another’s perspective, and thereby unintentionally project their own perspective onto others.” This, they write, “ultimately leads to egocentrically biased inferences of others’ perspectives.”

Physical warmth, they contend, strengthens this bias, by promoting a feeling of “increased social proximity and intimacy.” In contrast, they write, physical cold “is associated with social distance.” This perceived separation may help us understand the fact that their point of view differs from our own.

Needless to say, grasping that truism is important to a smoothly functioning society. Without it, we can get lost in a thicket of unwarranted assumptions, making it far more difficult to successfully complete everything from business transactions to political negotiations.

So forget those scenes in movies where influential men cut deals while in the sauna. This research suggests those negotiations would be more fruitful if they took place in a meat locker.

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