Volunteers who held a warm cup of coffee in their hands were more likely to rate other people as warm, generous, and sociable, a new study has found, in contrast to those subjects who cradled a cup of ice coffee. In a second experiment, people who held a heating pad were more likely to give a small reward to a friend than keep it for themselves, in contrast to those who held an icepack. In other words, researchers concluded, holding something warm makes you feel more generous toward others; holding something cold makes you, well, cold and selfish [Scientific American].
The findings offer a neat reversal of another recent study, which also studied the phenomenon of the unconscious “priming” of thoughts; in that earlier study, volunteers who experienced social rejection were found to prefer a hot beverage to a cold one, presumably as a way to restore their good spirits. The message of both studies is that very subtle cues from our environment can significantly influence behavior and feelings, said lead researcher Dr. Lawrence Williams…. Physical and psychological concepts “are much more closely aligned in the mind than we have previously appreciated,” said Williams [AP].
In the study, published in Science [subscription required], researchers suggest that the connection between heat and emotion — indeed, the fact that we call someone a “warm person” or speak of “breaking the ice” — seems to be the result of early associations in childhood. “Maintaining closeness to caretakers during infancy, a period of relative helplessness, is critical for the survival of many animals,” they write, so “a close mental association should develop between the concepts of physical warmth and psychological warmth” [The New York Times].
That common sense explanation has been backed up by brain imaging studies, which have shown that the same brain region, the insular cortex, processes both physical temperature changes and feelings of trust and empathy. “Parts of the brain that we know process physical attributes, whether it’s motor movements or physical pain — the same circuitry more and more is seen with more mental qualities” [AP], commented neuroscientist Caroline Zink.
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