MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From gloom and doom to more fun now. If you're going out on a date anytime soon, you may find this bit of science news useful. In an experiment, people who held something warm were more likely to perceive someone else as emotionally warm, and they were more likely to behave in a friendly way themselves. So, as NPR's Dan Charles suggests, order the soup, not the salad.
DAN CHARLES: The college students who volunteered for this experiment didn't realize when it started. They showed up at the psychology building at Yale University and met their contact outside the elevators.
Dr. LAWRENCE WILLIAMS (Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado): And she was holding a couple of textbooks and a clipboard, some papers, and also a cup of coffee
CHARLES: Lawrence Williams, who now teaches at the University of Colorado, helped design this experiment. The woman with a cup of coffee was his confederate. She knew what she was supposed to do, but she didn't know why. One by one, she took the students up to the fourth floor in the elevator.
Dr. WILLIAMS: And then, as they're riding up, she just asked the participant in a pretty innocuous way if they wouldn't mind holding her coffee cup as she wrote down some information.
CHARLES: Now, half the students got to hold hot coffee, and the other half got iced coffee. They only held the cup for a few seconds. But that short experience must have changed something in their brains. When they arrived at the fourth floor, they filled out questionnaires. They read a short description of a hypothetical person, Person A. And they had to evaluate this stranger's personality. Here's where the coffee's influence became apparent.
Dr. WILLIAMS: Participants who held the hot coffee cup rated this Person A as being more generous, more sociable, happier, better natured compared to participants who held the iced coffee cup.
CHARLES: Lawrence Williams thinks it's no coincidence that we use the same word, warmth, to describe both a physical and an emotional experience. Somewhere in the brain, he says, those two sensations are linked, and you can imagine why. Think of a baby held in its mother's arms. It's experiencing love, affection, comfort.
Dr. WILLIAMS: But you also have, at the same time, an experience with a warm object, in that case being a warm human being.
CHARLES: Williams carried out a related experiment to confirm this connection. Some student volunteers were asked to evaluate a hot pad, the kind used to treat injuries. Others held a cold pad. They got to choose a reward for participating. Those rewards, sometimes a fruit drink, sometimes ice cream, were described either as something for the volunteers to enjoy themselves or give as a gift to a friend.
Dr. WILLIAMS: Participants who held and evaluated the hot pad, they were more likely to choose a gift for a friend, whereas the people who held the cold pad were more likely to choose the reward for themselves over the gift for a friend.
CHARLES: Apparently, holding something warm made them feel more generous. Williams published his results in this week's issue of the Journal Science. He says, if nothing else, it demonstrates the tight connection between our minds and our bodies. In fact, some scientists think emotions actually start in the body. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, director of Germany's Central Institute for Mental Health in the city of Mannheim, says, according to one controversial theory, fear or happiness start as physical reactions that signals the brain and allows us to feel the emotion.
Dr. ANDREAS MEYER-LINDENBERG (Director, Central Institute for Mental Health, Mannheim, Germany): So, if you were just an embodied head in this hypothesis, you wouldn't actually be able to feel these emotions because they are signatures that actually come from the body and are registered in the brain.
CHARLES: After he read about the coffee experiment, Meyer-Lindenberg says he made a mental note. At the next meeting of his institute's advisory council, everybody gets something hot to drink. Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.