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Feeling cold is contagious, study says

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Posted at 10:38 PM, Jan 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-08 10:18:04-04

Ever watch someone struggle through the cold and feel a shiver run down your spine?

That may be because feeling cold is contagious.

In a new study, University of Sussex researchers asked 36 volunteers to watch other people put their hands in hot or cold water.

When the volunteers watched someone else douse their hand in ice cold water, the temperature in their own hands dropped significantly. There was no change when watching videos of steaming hot water.

The change was greater for people who scored high on empathy – the ability to feel what others are feeling.

Neuropsychiatrist Neil Harrison called the phenomenon a “temperature contagion.”

"Humans are profoundly social creatures and much of humans' success results from our ability to work together in complex communities,” Harrison said in a press release. “This would be hard to do if we were not able to rapidly empathize with each other and predict one another's thoughts, feelings and motivations."

But why no effect with heat? People may just be more sensitive to seeing other people feel cold, he said.

The study was published Tuesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.