Warm Hands Warm Your Heart

THURSDAY Oct. 23, 2008 -- Holding a warm cup of coffee gives you a warm feeling about the person across the table, new research reveals.

Conversely, if you are holding an iced coffee, your perception of your tablemate as generous and caring is less so. In fact, holding something warm makes you more likely to give something to others, while holding something cold make you more likely to take something, researchers find.

"Simply holding a warm or cold object can influence people's interpersonal judgments and decisions," said lead researcher Lawrence Williams, an assistant professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The report was published in the Oct. 24 issue of Science.

In the first study, Williams and John A. Bargh, a psychology professor at Yale University, found that holding a hot cup of coffee leads people to judge a stranger to be a warmer person, in terms of such traits as generosity and kindness, compared with a group of people who held a cup of iced coffee.

In a second study, they had people hold either a warm or cold object (therapeutic hot or cold pads), and then gave them a choice of reward for participating in the study: either a gift for a friend, or a reward for themselves.

"We found that people who held the hot pad were more likely to choose the gift for a friend, and people who held the cold pack were more likely to choose the reward for themselves," Williams said. "Both of these effects occurred without people's awareness of the possible effects of temperature."

People are incredibly sensitive to cues in their physical environments, Williams said. "The metaphorical relationship between physical temperatures and interpersonal warm or cold feelings is not haphazard or accidental, but reveals something interesting about the way the mind works, in that a cue from the physical domain can have such a meaningful impact on psychological outcomes," he said.

People should not underestimate the importance of surroundings in shaping thoughts, feelings and actions, Williams said. "Fundamental features of the world that we often take for granted, such has how warm or cold things are to the touch, matter for our psychological well-being," he said.

Paul Sanberg, director of the University of South Florida Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair in Tampa, isn't sure how far these results can be extended into daily life.

"Clearly, there is a relationship in the brain with physical warmth and a psychological feeling of warmth," Sanberg said. "If you had someone who had damage to that part of the brain, there may be a difference in the ability to feel warmth or coldness to another person."

In everyday language, the words "warm" and "cold" are used to describe other people, Sanberg said. "This may have developed because it's related to how we feel physically," he noted. "When I am feeling warm, is my judgment of other people's personality different than when I'm cold?"

Perhaps by changing the temperature of the environment, you could influence others' perceptions of you, Sanberg added. But if the same result happens with people you know or whether living in a warm climate affects your perception of other people isn't clear, he said.

More information

For more on emotions and health, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Posted: October 2008


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