Do people trust others more when they experience physical warmth? That's the theory of CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Lawrence E. Williams, who says simply handling a hot cup of coffee can change one's attitude toward a stranger.
In a paper published in the Oct. 24 issue of Science, Williams details a study he conducted with Yale University's John A. Bargh that shows a link between the way unsuspecting subjects rated a hypothetical person's personality and whether or not they had held a warm or cold beverage just prior to the test.
"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."
Williams asserts 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 the experiment, Williams enlisted the help of a confederate, who escorted the test subjects from the lobby of a psychology building and rode the elevator to the 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. And according to his data, Williams was right: People 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.
"In a point-of-service or communications interaction, paying attention to the fact that customers are tied to the physical world in which buying behavior occurs is important," said Williams. "If you are running a promotion outdoors on a cold day, maybe giving away a warm cookie will help you make connections with consumers. It gives marketers and managers more tools to work with."