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It’s a fact that holding a cup of hot coffee will warm your hands on a cold day—but could it also warm our hearts? New studies show that experiencing physical warmth may actually promote interpersonal warmth.
Furthermore, "warmth" is actually considered the most powerful personality trait in terms of our impressions of other people. Intriguingly, recent research in regards to the human race shows just how well we process both physical temperature and interpersonal warmth (trust). Accordingly, multiple studies have shown that experiences of physical warmth would increase feelings of interpersonal warmth, without the person’s awareness of this influence.
Professor John A. Bargh from Yale University in Connecticut, and Lawrence E. Williams from the University of Colorado, decided to test the theory of how people judge others to be more generous and caring if they had just held a warm cup of coffee, and less so if they were holding an iced coffee. Bargh and Williams decided to test the impact of warmth on the perceptions of students chosen at random throughout the Yale University campus. Williams hypothesised that holding the warm cup of coffee would make the subject more prone to have a positive and "warmer" outlook in general. To conduct the study, random undergraduate students were asked to briefly hold a cup of iced coffee or warm coffee as they wrote down specific information about an individual and his/her personality traits. Williams’ prediction was true; the subjects seemed to assess the random individuals as “warmer” if they had just held the cup of warm coffee as opposed to the iced coffee. So why is this?
First of all, it’s definitely a well-known fact that humans associate warmth with happiness. Without a doubt we are all familiar with the compliment, “You have a warm smile!” where "warm" is being associated with friendliness and homeliness. In this way, the feelings of warmth when one holds a hot cup of coffee or takes a warm bath might trigger memories of other feelings associated with warmth, due to early experiences with our caretakers (mothers) who provide warmth, shelter, safety, and nourishment.
Which begs the question, why “warm” and “cold”? Psychologists have stated that this is because you metaphorically class the concept on a physical sensation. This relates back to nurturing, where you used to rely on the warmth of the ones who cared for you as an infant, therefore triggering trust and comfort. But there is evidence in humans that physical and social warmth are associated. An area of the brain called the insular cortex is known to light up when the brain is processing both physical warming and psychological warmth information (pictures of mothers holding babies and stuff). And a part of the insula (the dorsal posterior part) is associated with both physical temperature and the sense of touch. The insula also lights up during feelings of trust, empathy, and things like guilt, and is definitely associated with feelings of social belonging or rejection.
Furthermore, a second study was conducted to further confirm these results. Participants chosen at random were asked to hold heated or frozen therapeutic packs (the warmth doesn’t have to be from coffee) as part of a "product evaluation." They were told they could receive a gift certificate for a friend or a gift for themselves. The study showed that those who held the hot therapeutic pack were more likely to ask for the gift certificate for a friend, while those who held the frozen pack seemed to keep the gift for themselves. “The findings show that the perception of warmth and coldness has a clear effect on peoples’ perceptions and social behaviours,” Williams said.
Remember, if you prefer an iced beverage over a warm one, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a "colder" person. Warm objects could be used just in the same way emotional or romantic music is used to increase our moods. We all know holding a warm cup of coffee is not a guaranteed cure for feeling selfish or "cold," it’s merely a fact that humans associate warmth with kindness. After researching this topic and writing this article, I can certainly feel a difference, can you?