CHICAGO It may seem unlikely, but simply clutching a warm cup of coffee can bring on a flood of warm feelings, U.S. researchers said on Thursday in a finding that suggests a strong link between physical and emotional warmth.
"Physical warmth can make us see others as warmer people, but also cause us to be warmer -- more generous and trusting -- as well," said John Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale University in Connecticut, whose research appears in the journal Science.
Bargh and Lawrence Williams of University of Colorado at Boulder ran a series of experiments to test the ties between physical temperature and emotional warmth.
They asked people to briefly hold a hot or iced coffee. Then they were given a packet of information about another person and asked to assess his or her personality traits.
Those who had held the warm cup of coffee were far more likely to assign "warmth" as a personality trait than those who held the icy beverage.
In the second study, volunteers held ice packs or therapeutic heating pads as part of a product evaluation study. Then they were told they could receive a gift certificate for a friend or a gift for themselves.
Those who had held the hot pad were more likely to ask for the gift certificate, while those who held the frozen pack tended to keep the gift.
"These very subtle and relatively simple cues are capable of having a meaningful impact on people's behavior," Williams said in a telephone interview.
He said imaging studies suggest temperature information -- both physical and interpersonal -- are processed in a region of the brain known as the insular cortex.
And he said these associations are likely formed in early childhood, noting that when an infant learns about love and physical closeness it typically happens while snuggling up to a parent's warm body.
"Taking a warm bath. Drinking a cup of tea or coffee. Chicken soup. It's not haphazard that we have a preference for these types of experiences," he said.
Williams said it is no accident that people in Western cultures looking to build new relationships often do it over coffee. "It's better than going out for ice cream," he said.