Mindfulness of Interpersonal Warmth

Photo by Marionel Luciano

This year I’m setting an intention to express more interpersonal warmth. It’s a quality in others I greatly admire and have benefitted so much from. So, I’d like to contribute to my fullest potential to these collective benefits. Though I often feel warmth for others on the inside, I’m not always sure it’s reflected on the outside, since I tend to be more introverted and reserved. Writing always helps me gain a deeper understanding of important concepts, so I decided to do a little research into how I might be more mindful of this beneficial trait.

The purpose of life is to increase the warm heart. – Dalai Lama

Social Psychologist Solomon Asch originally conceptualized “warm” and “cold” personality traits, which he felt were central in forming first impressions. Experientially, interpersonal warmth is a “pleasant, contented, intimate feeling that occurs during positive interactions”. In its behavioral expression, it has been described as an “actively conveyed positive response to others”.

Like so many feeling words, the term “warmth” reflects the embodied sense of certain associations that come along with the experience. Research suggests the same part of the brain involved in processing physical temperature is also involved in processing interpersonal warmth (trust) information. One study showed that holding a cup of hot (versus iced) coffee resulted in judging others as having a warmer personality (more generous and caring), and participants holding a hot (versus cold) therapeutic pad were more likely to choose a gift for a friend instead of for themselves.

There are both internal and external components to experiencing and expressing warmth. To be considered warm by others, there must be a perception of genuine friendliness, affection, helpfulness, and trustworthiness. Research indicates the behavioral cues most closely related to warmth ratings were frequency of smiling and number of positive statements about other people. The degree of another’s perceived warmth or coolness helps us decide whether they may be a potential friend and suggests to us what their intentions might be.

Interpersonal warmth is now recognized as one of the two main factors in our automatic appraisals of others. Together with competence, it accounts for about 82% of the variance in people’s evaluations of social behaviors. Research indicates that an appraisal of warmth underlies every group stereotype studied across dozens of countries. Not only is it a transformative trait for individuals, but it also contributes to our perceptions of groups and whole societies.

There are many benefits to being a warm person, while its opposite has been correlated in the research with lower relationship quality, personality disorders, aggression, criminality, and lack of social support. Greater warmth tends to be associated with closer, more intimate friendships. It has also been conceptualized as an important trait in effective leadership. You may have heard the saying, “Keep a cool head and a warm heart.” One study of about 50,000 managers revealed that a leader’s overall effectiveness was predicted more by others’ perceptions of their warmth than competence.

People higher in warmth tend to be more skillful in recognizing others’ emotional states and express less egocentrism. Cognitive egocentrism is a pattern of elevating one’s own perspective or state over another’s – or presuming one’s own internal state is a reflection of external reality. The ability to appreciate that others have distinct goals and viewpoints is correlated with less stereotyping and greater accommodation of others (Galinsky, Ku, & Wang, 2005). It’s important to recognize that some people have differences in their brains that make “theory of mind” very difficult, so reducing cognitive egocentrism may not be possible.

Those who score higher in measures of warmth tend to value nurturance over autonomy, view others as more trustworthy, and have a greater appreciation for and are more motivated to please others. Women (likely due to gender socialization and stereotypes) and people higher in Extraversion (from the “Big Five” personality factors) tend to be perceived as more interpersonally warm.

Take yourself out into the gathering light and breathe a bright ember into the very centre of you. – Brigit Anna McNeill

The correlation of warmth with outgoingness and a preference for interpersonal closeness can pose a challenge for people who are more introverted and reserved, like me. Fortunately, some researchers have expanded its definition to include an internal ethical sense that is perceived by others as trustworthiness. It’s speculated that one’s competence cannot be fully appreciated unless others believe you don’t intend to harm them. So, even if we’re pretty introverted, working on our own moral compass and ethical behavior can improve our expression of warmth.

Like most things in life, whether we’re perceived as warm or not isn’t entirely up to us. It’s complicated. Research shows being perceived as warm or cold can be entirely independent of our actual intentions. Others may be more or less likely to feel warm, comfortable, and trusting interpersonally depending upon early experiences with caretakers, cultural factors, or a history of traumatic experiences.

Knowing that the outcome is not entirely up to me, how might I do my part in inwardly experiencing and outwardly expressing more interpersonal warmth? Luckily, the skills I’ve gained through my mindfulness practice and the resources we share in our community can be applied to this intention. I can:

I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship.
I see your beauty. I hear your need. I sense your feelings.
My wisdom flows from the Highest Source. I salute that Source in you.
Let us work together for unity and love.

– Mahatma Gandhi, Prayer for Peace


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