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Can a warm drink make you a warmer person?

This sounds completely ridiculous. Is this some crazy woo-woo nonsense? Yet, it is true, and merely one example in a ridiculously list of seemingly irrelevant stimulus which affects our behaviour significantly. And it affects our behaviour without us being aware of it. 

Let's take a look at these experiments by Lawrence Williams and John Bargh from Yale Univesity.


Experiment 1: 

  • 41 people took part in the experiment. 

  • Each participant (one by one) was accompanied by the experimenter into a lift to go up to the research lab. The experimenter would be holding a coffee cup. 

  • During the lift ride, the experimenter would explain that he wanted to take down the participant's details, and asked the participant to hold on to the cup. 

  • For half the participants the coffee was warm; for the other half, it was iced.

  • The lift ride took between 10 - 25 seconds 

  • Once at the lab, the participants are given a profile of Person A.

  • They are then asked to assess the personality of Person A based on 10 personality questions: 5 of these were related to warmth (e.g. do you think that Person A is sociable or anti-social) while 5 of these were not related to warmth (e.g. do you think Person A is honest or dishonest)? 


And the results?

  • The warm coffee holders rated the person as much warmer on the 5 warmth-related questions. The iced-coffee holders rated the person as much colder. 

  • How do we know that this was not a fluke? Because there was no significant difference between how the 2 groups of participants (warm or iced coffee) rated the participant on non-warmth related questions.

  • In other words, how we judge someone's personality can be influenced by something as innocuous and simple as the temperature of the cup we are holding. 


Experiment 2: 

  • 53 participants involved

  • As part of the experiment, half of them were exposed to a heat pack, while the other half were exposed to a cool pack.

  • They were then asked some questions on the effectiveness of the packs. 

  • Finally, to thank them for their participation, participants were then offered a gift certificate. They could choose either a gift for themselves or a gift certificate for a friend.  Those who held the hot pack were more likely to ask for the gift certificate for their friends, while those who held the frozen pack tended to keep the gift.

Why does this happen?

As Dr Bargh, one of the experimenters explain:

“When we ask whether someone is a warm person or cold person, these terms implicitly tap into the primitive experience of what it means to be warm and cold. Saying that someone is warm or that you feel distant from a friend are more than simple metaphors. They are literal descriptions of emotions such as trust, first experienced during the intimate bond formed between mother and child during infancy." 


When we scan the brain, we realise that the same part of your brain activates when you are asked if the cup of coffee is warm or if the personality of this other party is warm. It's the same part of the brain that deals with both of these concepts, even though one is physical and the other is cognitive. 

In the same way, this is also how your brain deals with disgust. Recall a time when you ate something disgusting. What happens? You instinctively try to vomit it out, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, it churns your stomach. Now, think about something morally disgusting, child rape or cannibalism. Imagine that for a moment. What happens? Do you feel a little like vomiting? Does it leave a bad taste in your mouth? Does your stomach churn a little? Notice that whether it is moral or gustatory disgust, the language is exactly the same. Your reaction is exactly the same. The part of your brain - the insular cortex -processing both disgusts is exactly the same. (Find out more about the insular cortex and disgust here.)

This gives us an indication of how our brains evolve. Personality is a relatively new concept. No one did personality tests 50,000 years ago. Moral disgust is a relatively new concept - we didn't meet that many people 50,000 years ago, and those around us tend to be very similar to us, so we rarely encountered moral disgust. But as these concepts - personality, moral disgust - came into our lives, we didn't develop a new part of the brain to understand or regulate them. We simply evolved where existing brain parts dealt with similar-sounding notions


At a broad level, as something which so many pages on this website explain -  there are many factors that cause us to think and behave the way we do. And many of these are factors we don't even realise. By definition, we are only conscious of what we are conscious of. Who would ever guess that their assessment of someone or their generosity to friends can be determined by holding something warm? We think we make all our choices ourselves, but we don't, at least not consciously.

At a more specific level, as parents or family members or even friends, the warmth you emit as a person is related to the touch and contact. Hugging or giving friendly pats (as long as they are not inappropriately placed!) are more likely to make the other party feel your warmth, everything else kept the same. Especially for new parents, skin-to-skin contact with your child (who is yet to be able to properly understand what you say) is a good way to let them feel your warmth and love. 

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