Warm Hands, Warm Heart?

Holding Warm Things May Make People More Generous, Likely to View Others More Favorably, Researchers Say

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 23, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 23, 2008 -- You're probably familiar with the expression, "cold hands, warm heart." Now there's science to show the opposite is true.

Lawrence Williams, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and John A. Bargh, PhD, professor of psychology at Yale University, conducted two studies on undergraduate students to assess how temperatures affect emotions. They found that holding warm things may actually make people view others more favorably and may also make people more generous.

The first study included 41 college students with an average age of 18.5. A tester met each participant in the lobby of the building where the tests were being conducted. In the elevator on the way up, the tester casually asked the participant to hold his cup of coffee while he recorded some information on his clipboard. The participant did not know the coffee was part of the experiment. Half the participants were asked to hold a cup of warm coffee and half were asked to hold a cup of iced coffee.

Once in the testing room, participants were given a packet of information on an unknown person described with words like intelligent, skillful, industrious, practical, and cautious. Participants were then asked to evaluate the person's personality using a questionnaire. Participants who had held the warm coffee were much more likely to score the pretend person as warmer than those who had held the iced coffee.

"When we ask whether someone is a warm person or cold person, they both have a temperature of 98.6," Bargh, co-author of the paper, says in a news release. "These terms implicitly tap into the primitive experience of what it means to be warm and cold."

In the second experiment, 53 participants were asked to hold either a hot or cold therapeutic pad. Participants thought their role was to evaluate the product. After the "test," they were offered a reward for themselves or a treat for a friend. The people who had held the warm pad were more likely to choose the reward for the friend.

"It appears that the effect of physical temperature is not just on how we see others, it affects our own behavior as well," Bargh says. "Physical warmth can make us see others as warmer people, but also cause us to be warmer -- more generous and trusting -- as well."

Williams, the study's lead author, says in a news release, "At a board meeting, for instance, being willing to reach out and touch another human being, to share their hand, those experiences do matter although we may not always be aware of them."

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Williams, L., Science, 2008; vol 322: pp 606-607.

News release, Yale University.

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