We tend to judge others as more caring and generous when we are holding a hot drink than when we are holding a cold drink in our hands, said US researchers investigating the effect of physical warmth on social judgement.

Dr John A Bargh from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Dr Lawrence E Williams from the University of Colorado at Boulder, published their findings in the 24 October issue of Science.

Bargh and Williams have been looking at the effect of physical distance on social judgement and this recent study builds on that work. In this latest research they carried out two studies.

In the first study Bargh and Williams found that when people held a warm cup of coffee they tended to judge others as more generous and caring than when they held a cup of iced coffee.

In the second study, they found that people were more likely to give something to another person if they had just held something warm, whereas if they had just held something cold they were more likely to take keep it for themselves.

Describing people as warm or distant may be more than just expressions of speech, they could be literal descriptions of emotions, said the researchers.

Bargh explained that:

“These terms implicitly tap into the primitive experience of what it means to be warm and cold.”

“Warmth” is the most powerful personality trait in social judgement, wrote the authors, who mentioned that studies exploring attachment theory have found healthy relationships in adulthood are linked to having warm physical contact with caregivers in infancy and childhood.

Bargh and Williams also highlighted recent research on humans that suggest the insula part of the brain is involved in processing both physical temperature and emotions like interpersonal “warmth” and trust information.

So they decided to investigate how physical warmth and coldness influenced adults’ perceptions of interpersonal warmth and coldness, without them being aware of it.

For the first study, Bargh and Williams asked undergraduates to hold either a cup of warm coffee or a cup of iced coffee for a brief period as they wrote down information. The same subjects were then given information to read about a person and then asked to assess their personality. The results showed a significant increase in tendency among the warm drink holders to assess the people described in the information packs as “warmer” compared to the cold drink holders.

Apart from this, the responses from the two groups were the same: the other personality traits were no differently assessed by the warm and cold drink holders.

In the second study, the participants were asked to hold a heated or frozen therapeutic pack. They were told this was part of an evaluation study of the products they were holding and that they could have a gift certificate either or for themselves or for a friend when they had finished.

The results showed a significant tendency for the participants who had held the warm pack to ask for a gift for a friend whereas the ones who had held the cold pack were more likely to want the gift for themselves.

Bargh said the results suggest physical temperature affects not just the way we perceive others but also how we behave and act.

“Physical warmth can make us see others as warmer people, but also cause us to be warmer — more generous and trusting — as well.”

He explained that this theory is supported by other studies that used brain images. For example one showed that hot or cold signals stimulate the insular cortex while another showed that the same area of the brain is involved in borderline personality disorder, a severe condition characterized by inability or near inability to trust and work with others.

“Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth.
Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh
Science 24 October 2008 322: 606-607
DOI: 10.1126/science.1162548

Click here for Abstract.

Sources: Journal abstract, Yale University.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD.