Warm hands, warm hearts: An investigation of physical warmth as a prepared safety stimulus

Emotion. 2022 Oct;22(7):1517-1528. doi: 10.1037/emo0000925. Epub 2021 Oct 28.


Recent work has demonstrated that social support figures seem to be particularly robust inhibitors of the Pavlovian fear response. Specifically, social support figures appear to act as prepared safety stimuli, stimuli that have played an important role in mammalian survival and are thus less easily associated with threat and more able to inhibit the fear response. Given some of the shared behavioral and neural consequences of both social support and physical warmth, as well as the importance of physical warmth for mammalian survival, we conducted a series of examinations designed to examine whether physical warmth is also a prepared safety stimulus. In two studies conducted in human adults, we examined whether a physically warm stimulus was less readily associated with threat (compared to soft or neutral stimuli; Study 1) and was able to inhibit the fear response elicited by other threatening cues (compared to neutral stimuli; Study 2). Results showed that physical warmth resisted association with threat (Study 1) and not only inhibited the fear response but also led to lasting inhibition even after the warm stimulus was removed (Study 2). Together, these studies indicate that physical warmth, like social support, meets the requirements of being a prepared safety stimulus, and they pave the way for future work to clarify the properties that enable cues in this category to naturally inhibit fear responding. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Cues*
  • Fear* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Mammals
  • Social Support