4/6/2009 8:51

Warm Feelings

At last! I have finally learned why people stand around with cups of hot coffee before meetings. Science has come to my rescue with evidence "that mere tactile experiences of physical warmth" actually "activate concepts or feelings of interpersonal warmth". (This quotation is from Lawrence E. Williams and John Bargh, "Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth", Science 24 October 2008, page 606. The authors, I might add, are from the School of Business.)

In other words, if your hands are warm you behave more warmly towards other people, who are also standing around holding cups of hot coffee and feeling warm towards you. You also rate them as being more warm toward you, even before they pick up their own cups of coffee.

All of this hot-handedness is facilitated, it seems, by the fact that the same portion of the brain which responds to warm hands is integral to the assesment of warm hearts. So it isn't just an idiom to speak of warm friendships; it is neurology as well.

All of this makes subjective sense to me. I can easily imagine relaxing into the warm feelings of warm hands and warm conversation. Hot coffee, or hot cocoa, or hot cider served as we gather together, fostering a sense of kindred and mutuality before the business of the day begins.

Objectively, it makes no sense to me whatsoever. My actual experience of standing around in a group holding a cup of hot liquid doesn't match this picture well. When the cup is just warm enough, I remember myself retreating into the sense of physical warmth as an escape from the pressures of social contact. When the cup is too hot, it was a constant distraction. Should I have the temerity to put the hot liquid to my lips, nothing mattered to me but the confusion in my mind about why anyone, let alone the others in the room around me, would consider trying to drink hot fluids as anything other than a minor torture utterly without redeeming benefits.

The experimental science is all very interesting. I enjoy reading such reports and speculating on their import. No doubt such experimentation leads us a step forward in understanding the psychology of our species. The difference in attitude engendered by the hot coffee was a shift of about 8%, from an average rating of 4.25 on a scale of 1 to 7 to an average rating of 4.71. That's a big enough shift to be important, on average.

Our actual reality is made of the experiences of individual human beings, in each of whom a multitude of conflicting reactions play against each other. In my unaveraged experience of hot cocoa at a meeting these additional responses may easily swamp the effects of tactile warmth and keep my life, for the present, less predictable to the business psychologists.