Wanna Grab a Drink? How Temperature Affects Us
If you’ve ever been married, you know the rule: The husband is always to blame. My husband and I have been married for over thirty years and ten years ago decided to sell a small apartment that we owned in Tel Aviv. Although it was a beautiful, white-walled, sunny Bauhaus-style apartment in the city center, it had become a hassle for us to manage. We had many potential buyers come and go, but one particular newlywed couple kept coming to see it over and over again. On one visit, they even brought in an architect, who measured and fussed all over the place in a consultation about remodeling. They clearly wanted to buy.
We talked a little about numbers on their visits, but Israelis are notoriously coy negotiators, and we had made it nearly to the signing of the final paperwork without yet agreeing on the price. For what would be our last negotiation, we planned to meet the couple
at a mutual friend’s house to talk over tea. I remember clearly that on the way to that meeting, I believed their offer was too low and I planned to make a firm counteroffer. I practiced in my head all the ways I would talk about the value of the apartment, its great location, and other buyers’ interest in it. After we arrived, our hosts poured us all hot cups of black tea, and within ten minutes I found that I had agreed to the buyers’ original—and too low—offer.
When I came home, I was kicking myself, because I had the feeling that we could have easily gotten more if we had insisted. The couple was clearly very invested. Why had we given up so easily? Naturally, I decided it must have been my husband’s fault. Why hadn’t he argued? Why had we agreed so quickly? Maybe we had just gotten tired of the long negotiation and wanted to be done with it. Maybe we just liked the young couple. Years later, I found out that something far simpler was likely to have played a role: the warm cup of tea.
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In 2008, at Yale University, a student named Laurence Williams and his well-known professor John Bargh recruited forty-one students for a psychology study.1
One by one, the students were led into a lobby, where they were greeted by a young research assistant who guided them to an elevator that would take them to a laboratory on the fourth floor. As part of the experiment, the assistant had her hands full, carrying a stack of books, a clipboard, and a cup of coffee. While in the elevator, she asked the participant to hold her coffee for a second, so she could write his or her name and other information on her clipboard. This casual request was actually the most important part of the experimental procedure. Half of the participants were handed a hot cup of coffee and the other half an iced coffee. This subtly exposed them to different tactile experiences of temperature. Yet they had no idea that what they were being asked to do was significant.
When the participants stepped out of the elevator and into the lab, they were met by another experimenter, who sat them down and asked them to read a description of someone called only Person A, who was characterized as skillful, intelligent, determined, practical, industrious, and cautious. Unbeknownst to the participants, Person A was a fictitious composite character. They were then asked to rate Person A from a list of ten additional traits not included in the written description. Half of the traits were on the “warm-cold” spectrum—traits that we might associate with “warm” or “cold” personalities—and were identified by words such as generous or ungenerous, good-natured or irritable, sociable or antisocial, and caring or selfish. The remaining traits were unrelated to the warm-cold aspect and included descriptions such as talkative or quiet, strong or weak, honest or dishonest.
Behold the power of holding a warm cup of coffee. Participants who held the hot cup for a few moments in the elevator rated Person A as significantly more generous, good-natured, and caring than did their iced coffee–holding counterparts. People who held the cold cup were far more likely to see Person A as ungenerous, irritable, and selfish. Yet they all felt pretty much the same about adjectives unrelated to the warm-cold aspect, no matter which coffee the subjects held before they sat down.
Could the insignificant act of holding a warm cup of coffee in an elevator really make you see the people around you as nicer? What was going on here, psychologically speaking?
This finding that physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth was so surprising that many scientists raised their eyebrows and asked if it could be true. Yet, as you will soon see, temperature influences our reactions to real people just as it affected participants’ initial judgments of anonymous people they only read about. Temperature can even influence our perceptions of intimacy and connection.
Although individuals differ in how much they need intimacy and to what extent they are capable of it, intimacy is an essential component of most relationships. In 2009, two Dutch researchers explored whether temperature could affect how close people thought they were to others.2
As in the coffee experiment, the researchers had participants hold warm or cold beverages. The experimenter asked each participant to hold a beverage for a few minutes while he was pretending to install a questionnaire on the computer.
The experimenter then took the beverages from the participants and asked them to think of a real person they knew and rate how close they were to that person. Participants who were holding a warm beverage perceived the person in mind as closer emotionally to them than did those who were holding a cold beverage. This is surprising because most of us believe that our most intimate connections are stable on a day-to-day basis— we don’t expect them to be influenced by the temperature of the drink we hold.
Yet our minds do not exist in a vacuum, so our feelings and values can be affected by subtle influences around us. Seemingly irrelevant things that we process through our bodies and our physical senses do affect our states of mind, mostly without our awareness. The core theory of embodied cognition, the emergent field of psychology that we’re exploring, states that there is an indissoluble link between our decision making and our sensory-motor experiences, such as touching a warm or cold object, and our behaviors, judgments, and emotions.
Conventional psychology historically has been interested in what’s going on inside people’s heads and why they make the mistakes and choices that they do. Psychologists usually study fears, desires, memories, emotions. But what about the external context in which we find ourselves? Especially in a performance situation—a job, an audition,
an examination, or a sporting event—the environment outside the contestants’ heads also affects why they succeed or fail. An embodied cognition approach would study how even seemingly insignificant aspects of an audition environment—such as the heat of the stage lights, the color of the curtains, and any bright brand-name logos—might influence performance.
Embodied cognition theory proposes that the mind cannot work separately from the physical world; that the senses provide the bridge to both our unconscious and our conscious thought processes. We psychologists and neuroscientists working in this field seek to show the influence that physical sensations have over our mental states and behavior.3
The mind-body connection is evident in everything we do.
Read the following passage:
The warmth of his handshake hid the heavy weight of his memories, but he had shot her down in cold blood and would never again sleep with a clean conscience.
This sentence will not win any literary prizes with its awkward mix of metaphors, but let’s look at it closely. The phrases warmth of his handshake, heavy weight of his memories, in cold blood, and clean conscience show that our everyday speech is rooted in the connection between our physical experience and our psychological state.4
It’s difficult even to think of an emotion that doesn’t carry with it a physical metaphor: isolation is cold, guilt is heavy, cruelty is hard.
Sensation shows that these relations between physical sensations and emotions and behaviors are real, not just metaphorical. Physical sensations such as warmth, distance, weight, and many other subtle sensory experiences can (and do) activate and influence our judgments, emotional experiences, and performances. This relationship
between physical sensations and psychological experiences, though complex, reveals itself in a very particular way—as in the cold feeling that arises from loneliness.
A Cold, Lonely Night
Changes in temperature are known to affect our moods and behavior. Pleasant, warm weather improves mood,5
and heat is associated with aggression and crime rates.6
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio warns Mercutio of the air of sweltering violence in Verona’s streets. “I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire,” he says. “The day is hot, the Capulets abroad, and, if we meet, we shall not ’scape a brawl, for now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.” The reality of the relationship is, as always, more complex, but the link itself is clear. Some classical psychologists still hold out against this finding, just as hard-liners hold out against the proof of global climate change, but environmental factors affect our mental states and thoughts in profound ways. As it turns out, small talk about the weather may not be so small after all. “How about this weather?” is actually polite code for “What’s going on with you?” The answer to this seemingly innocent question may sometimes influence your judgments and decisions.
My mother used to love to tell this joke: A man and a woman had been dating for fifteen years. One day the woman asked the man, “Don’t you think it’s time we got married?” The man answered, “Absolutely, but who would marry us? It’s a cold world out there.” Of course the woman meant that the two of them should marry, but, as the man points out, it’s hard to find someone to be with. People sometimes use this expression, It’s a cold world out there, when they’re worrying about making bold changes in their lives, such as leaving a spouse or a job. What awaits them might be difficult, scary, or lonely—cold.
A friend once told me a sad little story from her youth. When she was thirteen, she was very excited about going to summer camp with her two best friends. But on the day they were supposed to leave, one of her friends fell ill and the other friend’s family changed their plans; all of a sudden, she had to go to camp alone. Decades later, as we talked over hot tea in Tel Aviv, she recounted how cold she had felt every night that summer. Even though summers in Israel are very warm, her thin blanket wasn’t enough to keep her comfortable. The connection between being lonely and feeling cold exists in many languages, in songs and poetry. Would my friend have experienced the temperature that summer differently if her friends had been there?
In North America, in Toronto, average daytime winter temperatures hover just below freezing. Residents contend with months of snow, ice, slush, and serious windchill. This is the appropriate environment in which two researchers from the University of Toronto investigated the connection between being cold and feeling lonely. In two experiments, they examined whether physical temperature affects our psychological states, and also whether our feelings affect our perception of temperature.7
In the first experiment, the researchers asked thirty-two students to recall a situation in which they felt they were socially excluded and lonely. Think of not being invited to a party, not being asked to play a game with others, et cetera. Another thirty-two students were asked to think of a situation in which they were socially included, like being accepted into a club. The researchers then intentionally diverted the students’ attention by telling them that the university maintenance staff wanted to know how hot or cold the room was. Would the students please estimate the temperature in the room? The students who recalled being socially excluded actually judged the room as colder than those who had recalled being socially included. The average estimate of those who remembered being excluded was 70.5 degrees,
compared with an average estimate of 75.2 degrees by those who remembered being included. Yet they all had sat in exactly the same room.
So you see, emotional memories can influence your physical experience in the present. There is a powerful connection—even across time—between coldness and loneliness.
The researchers then wanted to go beyond summoning a memory of loneliness and re-create the experience in the present. So they used a brilliant way of making people feel left out. They invited one group of subjects to play a virtual ball-tossing game. Participants were asked to sit at the computer and play online with three other players at different locations. What they didn’t know was that actually there were no other players; there was only a “cruel” computer program designed to throw the digital “ball” almost exclusively to the fictitious players in order to make the real person feel left out. The second group of participants got to play the same ball-tossing game, but with a computer program that was much less discriminatory in its ball tossing. These actual players received the ball intermittently throughout the game and, not surprisingly, had a much better time.
After the ball-tossing game, both groups were asked to participate in an ostensibly unrelated marketing task, to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how much they desired five different products: hot coffee, hot soup, an apple, crackers, and an icy Coke. Of course, the participants didn’t know that the researchers were in fact interested in the effect of the earlier exclusion, and the researchers found that the “excluded” students were significantly more likely to choose something hot than were the students who were not excluded. They concluded that warmth can be a remedy for loneliness.
Another group of researchers went to a deeper, more somatic level of studying exclusion and examined whether our skin temperature is actually lower when we feel left out.8
They used the same virtual
ball-tossing game as in the previous study, and again the computer was programmed for two conditions: inclusion and exclusion. In the inclusion game, participants received the ball every few throws, whereas in the exclusion game they never received the ball. Researchers measured participants’ finger temperature during the experiment and found that participants who were excluded really became colder, and their finger temperatures decreased.
Going even further, the researchers conducted an experiment to answer the question, Can holding something warm actually improve the feelings of people who have been excluded? They asked participants to play the same ball-tossing game and again divided them into excluded and included groups. This time, however, the researchers programmed the computer to stop after three minutes and display an alleged “error.” When this happened, a researcher arrived at the participants’ station holding a glass containing either cold or warm tea. All the participants requested his assistance, and the researcher then asked each participant to hold the beverage while he fixed the computer. Afterward, participants were asked to choose whether they had felt “bad,” “tense,” “sad,” or “stressed” and to rate their feeling from 1 to 5. I would certainly have predicted that those who had been excluded would report more negative feelings than those who had been included, which was true for these participants. The amazing part of the results is that only those who were excluded and held a cold glass of tea had more negative feelings. For those who were excluded but had held a warm glass, their warm hands had warmed their feelings and, apparently, caused them to feel better.
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Taken together, these results clearly show that feeling cold or warm is determined not only by the temperature of the room but also by your
mental state. If you feel lonely, whether you are actually excluded from an activity or you are in the same room with individuals who do not share your opinions, choices, and views, both your physical experience and your psychological experience actually change. Even if you just stand or sit far from someone or from a group, you feel isolated. The room becomes cold for you. In contrast, if you feel socially accepted, if you are in a room with people who share your opinions and preferences and views, or if you just sit close to someone, you feel that the room is warmer.
These findings have direct implications for how we live and should be especially important to teachers, educators, and parents, who try to help children adjust to many situations. For example, children and adolescents sometimes feel lonely or isolated at school, and this feeling can lead to adjustment problems. Now that you know that warm temperatures can positively affect interpersonal interactions, you can help children not to feel as if they have been left out in the cold, and also help others feel warmer toward them. A simple action such as turning up the heat, asking children to put on sweaters, or having children share hot chocolate or hot lunches together can help support a positive interpersonal climate.
A young man I know told me that when he was a teenager his parents sent him to a psychologist to try to improve their relationship with him, but he was so uncomfortable in the doctor’s office that he didn’t even take off his coat for the first four months. It took him that long to warm up even to the psychologist. I myself have gone to a number of parties where I did not know anybody and felt quite lonely when entering the room. Many other people must have felt that way, too, as they didn’t take off their coats either. Whether you’re hosting a meeting or a party, make sure that the room is warm, at least at the beginning of a gathering. Serving warm drinks in a cold season and warm soup as a starter to a dinner
might help. Lonely people—or people who are in new, unfamiliar social situations—need psychological warmth as well as physical warmth.
Temperature, Generosity, and Trust: Warm Your Hands and Open Your Heart
Could temperature affect more than just our opinions and feelings? Could it actually influence our behavior? Could your daily ritual of drinking coffee change the likelihood that you would, say, spare some change for someone who asks for help outside your neighborhood coffee shop? Does your warm morning tea help you start your day with a more open, positive attitude and even help you to trust others more? Williams and Bargh, the researchers at Yale who conducted the experiments with warm cups of coffee, devised a way to find out.9
They told participants that they were conducting a consumer marketing study and gave them a “new product,” a therapeutic pad. Participants were asked to hold the pad—which was either hot or cold—for a few moments, then evaluate its effectiveness and indicate whether they would recommend it to friends, family, and strangers. But the most important part of the study was actually not the survey but the decision participants were asked to make after it. Individually, participants were given a choice between two rewards for participating in the study: a refreshment for themselves or a small gift certificate in the name of a friend they could choose.
The results were dramatic. Among those who held the cold pad, about 75 percent chose a reward for themselves and only 25 percent chose a gift for a friend. Of those who handled and reviewed the hot pad, 54 to 46 percent chose a gift for a friend. That is a significant statistical difference in giving behavior. Yet the only factor that was
different in the experiment was the temperature of the pad in the participants’ hands.
The results of this experiment reinforce the notion that philanthropy and charitable donations can be more emotional than rational. This is not to say that giving is purely an emotional urge, because of course it contains a large rational component. We are not prone to bouts of careless giving or fits of philanthropy, but we do give for many reasons: we may want to be liked and respected by the recipient; we may want to be perceived as generous in our communities; and we may want to feel important and needed. But this experiment, like most embodied cognition experiments, shows that there is a visceral influence on our actions, even those that we believe come from purely logical thought processes. It also shows that not only is there a significant emotional and subconscious component, but we can be compelled to act by mundane and subtle quotidian forces. In this case, the behavior was triggered by the most trivial act (holding a therapeutic pad for a few moments).
Williams and Bargh led another investigation into whether holding a warm object would influence trust as well as generosity.10
The bedrock of marriages, friendships, and business relationships, trust can be hard-won and delicate, determined by many factors. Why do we build certain trusting relationships and not others? The decision to trust someone can be instantaneous and it can feel intuitive, but a little bit of warmth may help forge this important bond.
Researchers asked participants to hold a therapeutic pack that was either cold (59 degrees) or hot (105.8 degrees) in another supposed consumer product study. Then they had participants play a game in which some acted as investors and others as trustees. The investor decided how much money he or she would send to the trustee, who sat anonymously in the other room. The amount that the investor sent to the trustee was immediately tripled on receipt. Then the trustee
had to decide how much money he or she returned. In each round of the game, the investors could invest any amount of money from none to one dollar in ten-cent increments. The more the investor invested, the greater the possibility he or she would get back more money, but only if the trustee chose to return it. Although participants believed they were participating in an investing game, they were really engaging in a test of trust. The more an investor trusted the trustee, the more money he or she would invest.
The results of the study were amazing. Those who touched the cold pack just before the game invested less money compared with those who touched the warm pack. The group with the cold pack did not so easily trust the trustees and were not so sure the trustees would return the investment. Holding a hot therapeutic pack, however, prompted people to feel more intimacy and trust others more readily.
The generosity, trust, and intimacy effect of warmth seems to be short-term. Our minds are affected for only a little while by what our bodies feel, but, as I said earlier, what is brief is not necessarily unimportant. A snap judgment can have lasting consequences. The first step toward being able to control and work with these “peas and cues” from our environment—and from other people—is to become aware of them.
Consider that you might be able to improve a first date—or an initial business meeting—by merely giving your companion a warm drink. You might also consider meeting at a Japanese restaurant that offers warm towels before you eat. Whenever you want another person to perceive you as warm or sympathetic, offer him a cup of warm tea or coffee. In negotiations over things such as salary, sales, or divorce, if you want the other side to compromise or show some generosity, you might offer a nice cup of tea or an espresso, rather than a cold soft drink. Doing so just may tip the scales in your favor.