Your Brain and Hot Drinks

Wednesday, 12 August, 2015

Among other things, holding a hot drink increases the likelihood that you will judge strangers to be more welcoming and trustworthy, while the opposite is found when holding cold drinks.

Our physical environment heavily influences our mental state, mood, and behaviour, in ways we don’t even notice. We learn about our world through our senses, and therefore how we think is mediated by those same senses. This is reflected in the way we describe things. For example, we often describe personalities as “warm” or “cold”, which of course cannot literally be true. These kinds of metaphors are what prompted John Bargh from the University of Colorado to investigate how people’s behaviour changes depending on small sensorial manipulations.

Participants were asked to hold either hot or iced coffee while taking the elevator to the lab. They were then asked to read about and give their impression of a fictional character. Those who were holding hot coffee were more inclined to rate the character as “warm” as opposed to those who were holding the iced coffee.

Not only does handling something warm influence how you judge strangers, it also influences how likely to be generous, or “warm” you will be. In another experiment, people handled either a warm or a cold pack used for injuries. They were then offered either a drink for themselves, or a voucher for a friend. And yup, you guessed it! Those who were holding the warm pack were more likely to choose the voucher for their friend when compared to those holding the cold pack.

Bargh (what a fantastic name) has been involved in many such experiments, taking cues from everyday metaphors in our language, such as “weighty” ideas, where he found that holding a heavy object will make the idea you are contemplating seem more important than if you were holding a light object, and during negotiations, where if you were in contact with a hard object rather than a soft object, you would be more likely to experience the negotiation as more rigid or strict.

It’s extraordinary and also somehow unsurprising how easily influenced people are, and how easy it is for humans to misattribute the origins of their feelings. Bottom line though, going to coffee is probably your best bet for a first date.