Cold Temperature Priming Affects Cognitive Control

The perception of cold temperatures brings about greater cognitive control, even from a photo, according to researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Cognitive control is the ability to deliberately inhibit responses or make choices that maximize the long-term best interests of the individual. For example, when a person is very hungry and sees a sandwich but does not eat it, he is exhibiting cognitive control.

Lead researcher Dr. Idit Shalev of the Ben-Gurion University (BGU) Department of Education says:

“Metaphorical phrases like ‘coldly calculating,’ ‘heated response,’ and ‘cool-headed’ actually have some scientific validity, which we demonstrate in our study. Previous research focused on the actual effect of temperature on the psychological phenomenon known as ‘cognitive control.’ But this is the first time we were able to measure the effects of perceived temperature.”

Dr. Shalev conducted the research with Prof. Nachshon Meiran of the BGU Department of Psychology and their Ph.D. student, Eliran Halali, now of the Department of Psychology at Bar-Ilan University.

Hazy Shades Of Winter

The researchers conducted two experiments for the study.

In the first, 87 students performed an “anti-saccade task,” which requires looking in the opposite direction an object is moving and measures cognitive control. In the second experiment, 28 students were shown images of winter scenery, a temperature-neutral concrete street and a sunny landscape, and told to picture themselves in those settings.

“The result indicated that those viewing the cold landscape did better and that even without a physical trigger, cognitive control can be activated through conceptual processes alone,” says Dr. Shalev.

The researchers write there is a possible explanation for the relation of temperature and cognitive control with social proximity:

“While signals of warmth induce a relaxed attitude, cool signals trigger alertness and a possible need for greater cognitive control.”

Eliran Halali, Nachshon Meiran, Idit Shalev
Keep it cool: temperature priming effect on cognitive control
Psychological Research (2017) 81: 343. doi:10.1007/s00426-016-0753-6