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Warm hands, warm hearts

Oct. 23, 2008
Courtesy University of Colorado
and World Science staff

Just hold­ing a hot cup of cof­fee can im­prove one’s at­ti­tude to­ward a strang­er, sci­en­tists have found—peo­ple are more trust­ing when they feel phys­i­cal warmth.

Law­rence E. Wil­liams of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Col­o­rad­o at Boul­der and John A. Bargh of Yale Uni­ver­s­ity found a link be­tween how peo­ple rat­ed a hy­po­thet­i­c per­­son’s per­­son­al­ity, and wheth­er or not they had just held a warm or cold bev­er­age.

Image courtesy Science/AAAS


“The bas­ic sci­en­tif­ic im­plica­t­ion is about ex­plor­ing the link be­tween the phys­i­cal world and the psy­cho­log­i­cal world,” said Wil­liams, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at CU’s Leeds School of Busi­ness. “It’s at the same time sub­tle and very pow­er­ful—a re­peat­ed as­socia­t­ion of phys­i­cal warmth that is learn­ed over a life­time.”

The study is rem­i­nis­cent of an ear­li­er one, in which peo­ple who had just done some­thing bad were found to be more likely to wash their hand­s—as if they felt a link be­tween phys­i­cal and mor­al clean­li­ness. That re­search ap­peared in the Sept. 8, 2006 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.

Wil­liams not­ed that peo­ple nat­u­rally speak about oth­ers be­ing “warm” or “cold,” and pre­fer to spend time with those they per­­ceive as “war­m.” 

“When we use these terms, we’re not really con­cerned with phys­i­cal tem­pe­r­a­ture, but our find­ings sug­gest that our du­al use of the word 'warm' is nei­ther hap­haz­ard nor ac­ci­den­tal.”

For his study, al­so pub­lished in Sci­ence, Wil­liams en­listed the help of a con­fed­er­ate, who es­corted test sub­jects from the lob­by of a build­ing and rode the el­e­va­tor to a test ar­ea with them. The con­fed­er­ate car­ried a clip­board, two text­books and a cup of hot or iced cof­fee and knew noth­ing of the hy­poth­e­sis be­ing tested. Dur­ing the trip to the test ar­ea, the con­fed­er­ate asked the sub­ject to hold the cup of cof­fee while she recorded their name and the time of their par­ticipa­t­ion. 

Hold­ing the hot cup, Wil­liams hy­poth­e­sized, would “prime” the sub­ject to have a more pos­i­tive ap­prais­al of a hy­po­thet­i­cal per­son they read about once they reached the test­ing room. In­deed, Wil­liams re­ported, those who had briefly held the hot cof­fee cup per­­ceived the tar­get per­­son as be­ing sig­nif­i­cantly “warmer” than did those who had briefly held the cup of iced cof­fee. 

In a si­m­i­lar stu­dy, Wil­liams re­peat­ed the ex­pe­ri­ment us­ing not cof­fee, but hot and cold com­press pads. To elim­i­nate any in­ad­vert­ent in­flu­ence on the ex­pe­ri­ment by the con­fed­er­ate, the study sub­jects were asked to re­trieve ei­ther a hot or cold pad and to eval­u­ate it un­der the guise of a prod­uct test. 

Af­ter rat­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of the pads, the study sub­jects were giv­en a choice of re­ward for par­ti­ci­pat­ing in the stu­dy: ei­ther a Snap­ple bev­er­age or a $1 gift cer­tif­i­cate to a lo­cal ice cream shop. In some cases the re­ward of­fer was framed as a gift to “treat a friend” and in oth­ers as a per­­son­al re­ward. Re­gard­less of which gift was of­fered, those primed with cold­ness were more likely to choose a gift for them­selves, while those primed with warmth were more likely to choose the gift for a friend. 

“Ex­pe­ri­ences of phys­i­cal tem­pe­r­a­ture per se af­fect one’s im­pres­sions of and pro-social be­hav­ior to­ward oth­er peo­ple, with­out one’s aware­ness of such in­flu­ences,” said Wil­liams. “At a board meet­ing, for in­stance, be­ing will­ing to reach out and tou­ch anoth­er hu­man be­ing, to shake their hand, those ex­pe­riences do mat­ter al­though we may not al­ways be aware of them. In a res­tau­rant, it’s been shown that wait staff who tou­ch cus­tomers usu­ally get a bet­ter tip. It’s a nice ges­ture, but it al­so has a warm­ing ef­fec­t.”

Wil­liams said the re­search could have mar­ket­ing im­plica­t­ions be­cause it shows just how strong the bond is be­tween the phys­i­cal and the psy­cho­log­i­cal world. The study ap­pears in the jour­nal’s Oct. 24 is­sue.


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Simply holding a hot cup of coffee can improve one’s attitude toward a stranger, scientists have found—people are more trusting when they feel physical warmth. Lawrence E. Williams of the University of Colorado at Boulder and John A. Bargh of Yale University found a link between the people rated a hypothetical person’s personality, and whether or not they had just held a warm or cold beverage. “The basic scientific implication is about exploring the link between the physical world and the psychological world,” said Williams, an assistant professor of marketing at CU’s Leeds School of Business. “It’s at the same time subtle and very powerful—a repeated association of physical warmth that is learned over a lifetime.” The study is reminiscent of an earlier one, in which people who had just done something bad were found to be more likely to wash their hands—as if they felt a link between physical and moral cleanliness. That research appeared in the Sept. 8, 2006 issue of the research journal Science. Williams noted that people naturally speak about others being “warm” or “cold,” and prefer to spend time with those they perceive as “warm.” “When we use these terms, we’re not really concerned with physical temperature, but our findings suggest that our dual use of the word “warm” is neither haphazard nor accidental.” For his experiment, also published in Science, Williams enlisted the help of a confederate, who escorted test subjects from the lobby of a building and rode the elevator to a test area with them. The confederate carried a clipboard, two textbooks and a cup of hot or iced coffee and knew nothing of the hypothesis being tested. During the trip to the test area, the confederate asked the subject to hold the cup of coffee while she recorded their name and the time of their participation. Holding the hot cup, Williams hypothesized, would “prime” the subject to have a more positive appraisal of a hypothetical person they read about once they reached the testing room. Indeed, Williams reported, those who had briefly held the hot coffee cup perceived the target person as being significantly “warmer” than did those who had briefly held the cup of iced coffee. In a similar study, Williams repeated the same experiment using not coffee, but hot and cold compress pads. To eliminate any inadvertent influence on the experiment by the confederate, the study subjects were asked to retrieve either a hot or cold pad and to evaluate it under the guise of a product test. After rating the effectiveness of the pads, the study subjects were given a choice of reward for participating in the study: either a Snapple beverage or a $1 gift certificate to a local ice cream shop. In some cases the reward offer was framed as a gift to “treat a friend” and in others as a personal reward. Regardless of which gift was offered, those primed with coldness were more likely to choose a gift for themselves, while those primed with warmth were more likely to choose the gift for a friend. “Experiences of physical temperature per se affect one’s impressions of and pro-social behavior toward other people, without one’s awareness of such influences,” said Williams. “At a board meeting, for instance, being willing to reach out and touch another human being, to shake their hand, those experiences do matter although we may not always be aware of them. In a restaurant, it’s been shown that wait staff who touch customers usually get a better tip. It’s a nice gesture, but it also has a warming effect.” Williams said the research could have marketing implications because it shows just how strong the bond is between the physical and the psychological world. The study appears in the journal’s Oct. 24 issue.