Warm Your Hands, Warm Your Outlook?

October 23, 2008

People keen to make a positive impression on a new acquaintance might want to meet over a hot drink, a new study suggests.

In a new experiment, people who held steaming cups of coffee for a few seconds judged another person as more generous, caring, and happy than people who held a cup of iced coffee did.

In a second experiment, people who briefly handled a therapeutic hot pad instead of an ice pack were more likely to later select a gift for a friend rather than themselves.

The findings indicate that physical warmth unconsciously stimulates friendly behavior toward other people, according to marketing professor Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"There's a meaningful interface between the physical world and our bodies and the psychological world and what's going on in our heads," said Williams, who led the study, to appear in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Environmental Influence

The new report supports the idea that environment influences behavior in subtle and unconscious ways, according to Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Berger published a study earlier this year showing that where people vote affects how they vote.

"Holding something warm might lead someone to perceive others as warmer, which could have carry-over effects on how people treat others," he said.

While he cautions there's more to an encounter than the temperature of the refreshments served, a hot drink might seal the deal.

"On the margin, it might push them to see you more favorably," he said.

Relationship Building

Study leader Williams said the findings build on previous research showing a connection between physical warmth, such as a mother's embrace, and the use of metaphorical terms such as "warm personality" to indicate qualities including generosity, kindness, and sociability.

In addition, recent research indicates the same region of the brain is responsible for processing information about physical warmth and psychological warmth.

The new study shows how those concepts "play out in the real world, so to speak, in terms of people's judgments and decisions."

People ought to keep the findings in mind as they set out to build new relationships, Williams said.

"You may want to err on the side of introducing [physical] warmth to situations … to create sensations of interpersonal warmth more than cold."

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