Warm coffee warms the heart

26 October 2008


Here at the Naked Scientists we're all pretty warm-hearted people, but now researchers at Yale University have shown that it might be down to our choice of drinks rather than our nice personalities.

Latte macchiato
This photograph shows a glass of latte macchiato, which is a hot beverage made from steamed milk and espresso. © Image by Aleph, http://commons.wikimedia.org

Writing in the latest issue of the journal Science, the researchers have found that people judged others to be more generous and caring if they had just held a warm cup of coffee, but not so nice if they had held an iced coffee. Following on from this, they also found that people are more likely to give something to others if they had just held something warm, but more likely to take if they had held something cold.

To test their ideas, the researchers asked volunteers to briefly hold either a warm cup of coffee or iced coffee as they wrote down information. The subjects were then given a packet of information about a person and then asked to assess their personality. The volunteers felt that the person was significantly "warmer", in personal terms, if they had just been holding the hot coffee, compared with those who held the iced coffee. For their next experiments, volunteers either held hot or cold packs, and were told they could either have  gift certificate for  friend or a gift themselves. The researchers found that those who held the hot pack were more likely to ask for the gift certificate, while those who held the frozen pack tended to keep the gift.

So physical warmth not only makes us see other people as warmer, but leads us to be more generous and trusting ourselves.  This ties in with recent brain imaging studies showing that heat or cold can trigger activity in part of the brain called the insular cortex - the same area is damaged in people who have borderline personality disorder, meaning they can't co-operate with people or figure out who to trust.

The same researchers had previously shown that the physical distance between individuals also influences their judgements about another person. Added to that, this new work suggests that using words to describe people like warm, cold, or distant are more than simple metaphors, but have a more deep-seated meaning.Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh Science 24th October 2008: 606-607.


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