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Disney's Frozen - The Science of being cold and lonely

In the "Science Of" series we will discuss how specific scientific studies or fields of study relate to fiction, narrative, and/or media.  (spoilers below)

Elsa from Frozen
Elsa from Disney's Frozen

In the new Disney movie Frozen, a girl named Elsa, who possesses powerful cold-based magic, becomes isolated by her well-meaning, but fearful parents. As her isolation increases, her magic coldness continues to grow more and more powerful until she can barely control it. After even her parents are lost to her, she loses control of her magic and chooses to live completely alone on a snowy peak ensconced inside an ice castle of her own creation. Only love can melt the powerful magic coldness, and only acceptance and positive interactions with others can keep her magical iciness in check.

The metaphorical coldness that comes from social isolation is recognized in fiction everywhere from ice-cold killers, to magical snow queens, to spies who are left out in the cold. Even casual everyday phrases like "cold-blooded," "a frosty demeanor," "left me cold," and "icy stare" show the link of social isolation to the feeling of cold. Being cold and alone just seem to go together. To demonstrate the directional strength of the idea, try to imagine the opposite. Have you ever heard a sad song of a broken heart crooned by someone who was "warm and lonely"?

It's an indelible metaphor that pervades literature of all forms. But why? Why is social isolation always portrayed in terms of cold, while welcoming, social interaction is always warm? The answer may turn out to be that loneliness does in fact feel cold.

cold castle
Elsa's castle from Disney's Frozen


The Science

A 2008 study (Zhong, Leonardelli) revealed that feeling rejected by others actually makes people feel colder. In fact even the memory of being rejected was enough to make participants in the study feel chilly. After being asked to recall a time of social exclusion or inclusion, participants were then asked to guess the temperature of the room they were in. The group who was asked to recall the time of social exclusion guessed that the temperature of the room was lower than the group who were asked to recall experiences of being socially included.

In a second experiment participants were socially excluded in a virtual game. After the game they were asked to choose from a list of hot or cold beverages and foods. Not surprisingly those who were excluded chose the warm options at a higher rate than those that were not socially excluded. Strange as it sounds, being excluded from a game can make you crave hot coffee. Chicken soup for the soul?

As the research continues, the connection between loneliness and cold gets even stranger. Another study in 2011 (Bargh and Shalev) showed that physical and social warmth are somewhat substitutable for each other. That means, roughly speaking, that if you're made to feel cold, you might also feel lonely. If you're feeling lonely, taking a hot shower or bath might make you feel less so.

"In conclusion, we have shown that people tend to self-regulate their feelings of social connectedness through the use of physical warmth experiences [...] Our experimental evidence suggests that the substitution of physical for social warmth can reduce needs for affiliation and emotion regulation caused by loneliness and social rejection..."

It also works for feelings of social warmth. Holding a hot beverage, for instance, increases our positive feelings toward strangers (Williams and Bargh, 2008).

Why would this be? Why would physical warmth or coldness apply to concepts of social warmth or coldness? There isn't a proven answer to that, but there are several good leads.

More and more researchers are finding evidence that we understand the complicated symbolic world of fiction and metaphor through our body, not just our language. It has recently been shown that our brains "feel" metaphors. (Simon Lacey, Randall Stilla, K. Sathian, 20012) The centers of our brains used to process texture and tactile feelings light up when we comprehend metaphors such as "I had a rough day." It is all part of the new "embodied cognition" movement. Somehow our bodies have come to understand social inclusion as warm and social exclusion as cold. What connected these two concepts for our bodies?

In the study by Williams & Bargh (2008) a highly likely candidate is put forward: our primary caregivers. The study references a classic study from 1958 by Harry Harlow on attachment and social development in monkeys.

"Harry Harlow (15), in his classic studies on maternal-infant bonding in nonhuman primates, demonstrated that macaque monkeys preferred to stay close to a cloth surrogate mother rather than a wire mother. This preference held even when the wire mother was the infant’s source of food (a bottle was attached to the wire) and the cloth mother was not. Tellingly, the cloth and the wire mothers differed in another important respect: The cloth (but not the wire) mother was a source of warmth for the infant monkey (a 100-W light bulb had been placed behind the cloth). As Harlow (15) concluded, contact comfort with the mother was a very important factor to the infant monkey, over and above her meeting nourishment needs; moreover, monkeys “raised” by the warm cloth mother showed relatively normal social development as adults, in stark contrast to the infants left alone with the wire mother."

The study goes on to discuss how the brain itself appears to be wired to make this connection between cold and social isolation.

Harlow's Wire Mother
Wire and cloth "mothers" from Harlow's experiments

"Indeed, recent research on the neurobiology of attachment has added further support for the proposed link between tactile temperature sensation and feelings of psychological warmth and trust (18). This research has revealed that the insular cortex is implicated in processing both the physical and the psychological versions of warmth information (19)."

We can also add our own not very scientific observation that of all the frozen stereotypes in fiction, there are an abundance of ice-cold maternal figures. Royal winter women endure from Narnia's White Witch to the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson that inspired the Frozen movie. In the first few rows of these Google image searches, you can see the endless variations of images searching for "snow queen" and the utter lack of imagery when searching for "snow king," which mostly features a skiing resort.



Google Image search for snow queen
Snow Queen search on Google



Google Image search for snow king
Snow King search on Google

The same for searches on "ice queen" and "ice king." The latter featuring just one character repeated over and over again from the cartoon Adventure Time.

Frozen Again

Elsa is a good example of the scientifically observed connection of cold to isolation explored above. Just as in the studies, her metaphor runs both ways. In the movie, her parents physically shut her away from her friends, her sister, and almost all physical contact. They close the "doors of their kingdom" so that no one will know about their daughter's "curse." Her world of enforced social coldness intensifies her "magic coldness" or "physical/emotional coldness." Then, because her magical inner coldness has increased to such an alarming level, she feels even more isolated (socially cold) than she really is. It is a vicious cycle that she cannot break. Eventually she chooses to leave everyone and to live in complete social coldness and complete physical coldness. She has become "frozen" in both senses of the word.

At the end of the movie Elsa's realization that her younger sister Anna truly loves her (social inclusion/warmth) allows her magical coldness to disappear and "unfreeze" her world. As the town's people begin to interact with her again, the intensity of her felt coldness diminishes until it can be controlled and even enjoyed. She declares that the gates to her kingdom will never be shut again, ensuring that her world will never be frozen again.

It seems that at some level we really do connect being cold with being isolated, distant, and rejected. Both in our bodies and in our fiction.