Warm Hands, Warm Hearts – How holding a hot cup of coffee can make you see others as friendlier and warmer

One of the first impressions we make of a person is whether they have a “warm” or “cold” personality. A warm personality is generally linked with being trustworthy, friendly and helpful, while a cold personality is linked to the perception of a person being considered a potential enemy (Willis & Todorov, 2006).

Interestingly, research reveals that a person’s “warm” or “cold” personality isn’t just metaphorical. Williams and Bargh (2008), researchers at the University of Colorado and Yale University, amazingly showed that merely holding a hot or cold cup of coffee for a few short moments makes a difference in how “warm” or “cold” participants judged a stranger’s personality.

In the first part of the experiment, Williams and Bargh had an experimenter hold either a cup of hot coffee or iced coffee in one hand and meet 41 participants individually in the lobby of a building. While riding up the elevator to the 4th floor, the experimenter asked the participant to briefly hold either a hot or cold cup of coffee while she wrote down the name of the participant on a clipboard.

After arriving on the 4th floor the participants were given a questionnaire to judge the personality of a fictional individual. The participants who held hot coffee perceived the fictional individual as friendlier and warmer than those who held the cold coffee!

Then Williams and Bargh took it a step further.

They gave another group of 53 volunteers a hot or cold therapeutic pad under the guise of a product evaluation. Later, when the volunteers were offered a small reward for their effort – a bottle of Snapple or a dollar voucher at the local ice-cream parlour – those who touched the hot pads were more likely to give it to a friend than to keep it for themselves. In fact, 75% of them chose the charitable option, compared to just 54% who held the cold pad!

What both of these experiments show is the amazing power of how experiencing physical sensations of warmth influences our interpersonal warmth (aka “trust”) towards others. Scientists observe that this is particularly important in early childhood experiences where physical warmth from caregivers become critical for the normal development of interpersonal warmth behavior in adults.

So the next time you’re next to your child, a friend or a loved one give them a good warm hug. You’ll be the trigger of a chain of positive social relationships to come.


L. E. Williams, J. A. Bargh (2008). Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth Science, 322, 606-607.

Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science, 7, 592-598.