Heart-Warming News on Hot Coffee

Cup of coffee with heart shaped swirl of cream
October 23, 2008

Research by Williams and Bargh featured in The New York Times

In a recent experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of and behavior toward a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.

At long last, we have scientific guidance regarding that great question of social lubrication: Should you ask someone to meet for a drink or a cup of coffee? We may also have cause to update Ogden Nash’s famously short poem, “Reflections on Ice-Breaking” — and there’s a prize for the Lab reader who can do it in style.

Psychologists report in Science that you’re more likely to think warmly of someone else if you’re holding something warm in your hand like a mug of coffee or tea. The experimenters, Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado and John Bargh of Yale, gave cups of either hot or iced coffee to people and asked them to rate someone’s personality based on a packet of information. The ones who held the hot cup rated that individual significantly higher for “warmth” than did the subjects holding the iced coffee.

The psychologists, unfortunately, did not try the same test with a cold beer, or with something hot and alcoholic like Irish coffee — clearly, further research is needed to compare the exact social effects of liquor and coffee. (Volunteers?) But the psychologists did confirm the effects of heat in another experiment by offering people a gift certificate that they could keep for themselves or give to a friend. The subjects given a heated therapeutic pad to hold were more likely to give the certificate to a friend than were the ones holding a frozen pad.

The 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.”

“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,” Dr. Williams said. “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.”

Dr. Bargh points to recent brain imaging studies showing that the experience of hot or cold stimulus triggers activity in the insular cortex, the same area of the brain associated with a personality disorder that makes people uncooperative and distrustful.

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

Will this news change strategies for business meetings and first dates? Should Starbucks’ stockholders rejoice? Will waiters in search of tips start pushing hot drinks and keep finding excuses to touch you?

And is it time to update “Reflections on Ice-Breaking”? Nash wrote:

Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker.

Nash is said to have later appended another couplet — “Pot / Is not.” It’s a nice rhyme, although there are those who dispute its scientific accuracy.

Now that we actually data about coffee — or tea, or anything else warm you could hold in your hand — can anyone come up with another couplet? I’m afraid I can’t think of a rhyme for “Irish coffee.” I like the sound of “Java / Is lava,” but it doesn’t make much sense. “Java / Is suaver”? “Mulled wine / Works just fine”? “Hot mugs / Promote hugs?”

I need some help. I’ll offer a prize — the “Best of Ogden Nash’ anthology — to the Lab reader who comes up with the best couplet.