Touching something warm warms hearts

Time to update the saying “cold hands, warm heart.” New research shows that touching something warm can make you feel and act more warmly toward others.

Whether someone is deemed to have a “warm” or “cold” personality makes a powerful first impression. That led Yale University scientists to wonder if physical warmth could promote psychological warmth, by subconsciously priming people to think better of others.

It took a sneaky study to find out: A lab worker escorting each participant casually asked for help holding her cup of coffee – either hot or iced – while she recorded the name on a clipboard.

On a “personality test,” participants who had held the hot cup saw people as more generous, sociable and good-natured than those who had held the cold cup – all traits that psychologists consider part of a “warm” personality, the researchers report in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

Yet, there were no differences between the two groups on ratings of honesty, attractiveness or strength, traits not associated with either warm or cold personalities.

Then researchers used heat or ice pads in another test with other participants, who could choose a reward for themselves or for a friend.

Those who held the hot pad were more likely to choose a reward for a friend, while those who held the ice pad were more likely to choose a reward for themselves.

So is the moral of the story to hand out hot drinks when you want to make a good first impression? Not quite.

The bigger message is that very subtle cues from our environment can significantly influence behavior and feelings, said lead researcher Lawrence Williams, who conducted the study while completing his psychology graduate degree at Yale.