The Link Between Physical and Psychological Temperatures

Spring is a period of transition between cold and warm weather for many of us living in northern climates. You may also notice people getting increasingly nicer, happier and “warmer” during this time. This is no coincidence; there is actually a well-established link between changes in people’s physical temperature and their psychological “temperature” or temperament. There’s a growing body of research exploring this very phenomenon. Our perception of a person’s level of warmth has a very strong link to how trustworthy we deem them. Feelings associated with warmth for us include trust and comfort. Researchers believe this may be due to our early experiences in infancy and childhood of caretakers providing us warmth, shelter, protection, and nourishment in the time when we were very vulnerable and defenseless.

Early classic studies on this topic included Harry Harlow’s macaque monkey experiments. He gave the baby monkeys two different “surrogate” mothers; one was made of wire, and the other was covered in comfortable cloth. The cloth mother was a source of warmth and comfort and the monkeys raised with her had relatively normal social development as adults, whereas the ones who were left alone with the wire mother were anxious and socially underdeveloped. These findings and subsequent studies suggest that comfort and closeness to the caretaker is more crucial than even their ability to satisfy the thirst and hunger of the young.

More recent experiments built on the assumption that physical experiences of warmth should activate interpersonal warmth. In a study done at the University of Colorado, participants were given either hot or iced coffee to hold and then given a survey about a theoretical “Person A” and their warm or cold traits. People who briefly held the hot coffee perceived the person as being warmer than those who held the ice coffee. They also had no awareness that this was happening – the effect was completely subconscious!

The follow-up study wanted to evaluate how selfless or “warm” participants would be in response to their temperature tactile experiences. Fifty-three participants briefly held either a hot or cold pack, disguised as a product evaluation. Afterward, they were given the option to get a gift certificate reward for themselves, or for a friend. The subjects who held the hot pack were more likely to select a gift for a friend than for themselves, whereas the subjects holding the cold pack were much more likely to pick a gift for themselves.

Interestingly enough, some more recent studies show a bit of depth and complexity in the hot-cold dimension of interaction. In fact, a British Psychological Society study demonstrated that physical coldness can increase interpersonal warmth in negative situations. Basically, the link between hot and cold temperatures is context-dependent. People with cold, as opposed to hot, drinks were more likely to forgive a peer who was acting dishonestly. Participants with cold drinks were less likely to help a person who had provided them with good service, but more likely to help someone who had provided them with bad service (negative social context). In the third part of their experiment, the study found that people with a cold drink were more likely to complain in a fast-moving line (positive experience), and less likely complain in a slow-moving line (negative experience). These findings are fascinating because it seems the person experiencing physical coldness becomes more comfortable when their surroundings are matching their physical experience, negative and cold.

Experiences of physical temperature subconsciously affect a person’s social behavior towards others and experience of others. A half century in the works, we are beginning to gain a clearer understanding of the hot-cold dimension in interpersonal behavior and even getting a glimpse into some of its complexities. Maybe all of this can help us when dealing with others socially – always offer someone a hot drink first! Perhaps we should also think twice when the barista at the coffee shop asks if we want our coffee hot or iced


Wei, W., J. Ma, and L. Wang. “The ‘Warm’ Side of Coldness: Cold Promotes Interpersonal Warmth in Negative Contexts.” The British Journal of Social Psychology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Williams, Lawrence E., and John A. Bargh. “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth.” Science (New York, N.Y.). U.S. National Library of Medicine, 24 Oct. 2008. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

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