The perception of warmth or coldness is often used in everyday life to describe abstract concepts. "Cold eyes" suggest a distant or selfish personality; a "warm smile" is synonymous with kindness. Psychologists have long thought that this kind of common wisdom may be based on actual physical experiences, and recently, a team from the University of Toronto in Canada discovered that icy stares and social exclusion literally feel cold (ScienceNOW, 17 September). The two new experiments show that this can work the other way as well: Hot and cold sensations can influence one's feelings.
For the first experiment, psychologist Lawrence Williams (ScienceCareers, 2 March 2007) of the University of Colorado, Boulder, recruited 41 undergraduate students. When they walked into the laboratory, they were casually asked to hold a hot or cold cup of coffee for a moment. They were then given a brief fictional description of "Person A" and asked to rate 10 personality traits based on this summary. The students weren't aware that holding the cup was part of the experiment, but the "effect is quite meaningful and astonishing," says Williams. Those who held hot cups were more likely to assign positive traits, such as "generous," "caring," or "sociable" to Person A than those who held the cold cups.