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Warm Hands Warm the Heart

What's the best way to meet and make a new friend? Is it over a cold drink, or a warm cup of coffee? As VOA's Rose Hoban reports, some new research shows that coffee might be the answer.

A new study shows that having something nearby that's warm to the touch helps others perceive you as a friendly person, especially for that all-important first impression.

Psychologist Lawrence Williams performed the study. He was interested in exploring the relationship between physical warmth and interpersonal warmth. To do the study, he asked people to come into the psychology lab at Yale University in Connecticut. As they arrived, an assistant met them in the lobby holding a cup of either warm coffee or iced coffee.

"And on their way up to the lab in the elevator, she just handed them her coffee cup," Williams says. "She was holding a few other things at the time, a couple of textbooks and a clipboard and some papers, and just asked them if they wouldn't mind holding this cup for her as she wrote down some information such as their name and the time of their participation. Then she took back the cup and brought them into the laboratory."

Williams explains that his "intervention" was complete by the time the study subjects reached the lab. Once there, he had the participants answer a questionnaire about a stranger - not the research assistant they met on the way into the building. This fictitious person was described as having ambiguous qualities, such as being "industrious" or "cautious" - traits that don't have anything to do with being sociable or friendly.

"What we found was that the people that held the hot coffee cup rated this ambiguous stranger as being a warmer person emotionally, socially, interpersonally warmer person," Williams says. "The participants who held the iced coffee cup saw this ambiguous person as being less warm."

Williams notes that in many languages, friendly, sociable people are often described as "warm" - and there may be a good reason why that's the case. In other studies, brain scans have shown that a part of the brain known as the insular cortex becomes more active when it's exposed to information about both temperature and interactions between people.

"Those studies found that the insular cortex is particularly active when we're making judgments or decisions about temperature, like physical temperature, when we have touch sensations that we glean temperature information from," he says. "But that same area of the brain is also very active when we're processing feelings of trust and empathy."

So Williams says it might be a good idea to meet someone new over a cup of steaming coffee and get the relationship off to a good start.

His research is published in the journal Science.