Holding Hot Coffee Makes You Likeable (& Other Life Tips From A Social Psychologist)

Photographed by Anna Jay.
Social psychologists spend their lives in labs, playing tricks on people to find out more about the human condition. Or so it seems, when you read Yale University professor John Bargh’s new book, Before You Know It. They get funding to test out all sorts of human peculiarities and come out of it with some seriously fascinating insights into the way our brains, consciences and emotions work. Here’s some oddly helpful life advice gleaned from scientific experiments that John Bargh either did himself or referenced in his research on unconscious thought.
1. Only ever meet someone for the first time while they’re holding a hot coffee
The experiment goes like this: Participants meet a man in an elevator on the way to the lab at Yale University. The man is an experimenter and he’s holding either a hot coffee in a paper cup or an iced coffee in a plastic cup, and he asks the study participant to hold it for 10 seconds while he gets something out of his briefcase. They’re not really aware that the experiment just started. Once in the lab, they’re all asked to read a description of a person and rank how they feel about them. The people who held the hot coffee liked the sound of that person much more than those who held the iced coffee. This confirmed John Bargh’s suspicion that there’s a primal link between actual, physical warmth and social warmth or likeability. You’re more likely to like someone if you’ve just felt physical warmth. So if you’re going for a job interview or on a first date, maybe take a hot beverage and ask your future boss or husband to hold it right before you introduce yourself.
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2. Never do a maths test in your swimming costume
Put a group of women and men in a room. Split them up. Give half of them swimming costumes to change into and half of them jumpers to put on over their clothes. Send them into changing rooms, tell them to look themselves up and down in a full-length mirror and then ask them how they feel about their body in a questionnaire. Then get them to sit down and do a maths test. The women in the swimming costumes, now that they’ve been made aware of their own bodies and perhaps feel vulnerable in minimal clothing, will do worse on their tests than the women in jumpers. They’ll get an average of 2.5 correct answers, compared to 4 for the jumper-clad ladies. The men’s scores will not be affected at all. This is proof that when women are made aware of their own body identities, say at the beach, they become distracted and revert to the social conditioning that told them to assess their own value based on physical attractiveness rather than intelligence.
3. Don’t freak out if you start to look like your romantic partner
When we care about someone or spend a lot of time with them, we start to mimic their facial expressions, body language and speech patterns. So consider a couple who’ve been married for 30, maybe 40 years. They’ve been mimicking one another’s facial expressions every day for decades, using the same facial muscles. Eventually, they develop similar line patterns on their faces, which probably makes them look more like one another than when they started out dating. An experiment got people to compare pictures of married people on their wedding day and then 25 years later and they all agreed that the couples looked far more like each other after their quarter-century anniversary. They also said they looked more alike than sets of strangers (and they weren’t told which ones were married and which ones were not).
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4. The crime rate gets higher when you have a baby
Or so you believe... When you become a parent, you want to protect your child and that instinct heightens your awareness of danger. You might start to see ordinary household objects like window blind cords or electrical sockets as sinister because of the potential danger they pose to your child. Being vigilant about a baby’s safety actually leads us to think the world is a more dangerous place than it was before they were born. A survey asked 1,800 Americans whether they thought the crime rate had changed over the past eight years. If they had not had a child during that time, they’d say the crime rate had declined – which it had. If they did have a child during that time, though, their most common answer was that the crime rate had increased – which it had not.
5. Sadness will make you want to spend more money
Strong emotions like disgust and sadness have an economic effect. In an experiment, people were shown the four-minute scene in Trainspotting where the character goes to a very disgusting bathroom. Then they were asked to write about how they’d feel if that were them, forcing them to feel disgusted. When they were given a highlighter and then asked to sell it, they were willing to take a relatively low price to get rid of it because the feeling of disgust left over from watching the toilet scene put them in a mood to get rid of their belonging. Same experiment, but with a sad scene from the movie The Champ, where the boy’s mentor dies. After reflecting on how that scene made them feel, people would sell the highlighter cheaply but, interestingly, wanted to pay more to buy the highlighter. Sadness motivated them to want to change the way they felt by spending more money. So be careful going on a shopping spree after watching The Notebook – that’s the lesson here.
Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do by John Bargh is published by William Heinemann (hardback, £20).
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