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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Seedcorn grant report

05.12.2016, by Sibylle Classen in grant report

Janina Steinmetz, University of Chicago, & Ann-Christin Posten, University of Cologne
Can physical cues influence the way people respond in surveys and experiments?

Can physical cues influence the way people respond in surveys and experiments?
Physical temperature is a ubiquitous environmental feature that deeply affects humans not only physically, but also psychologically (IJzerman et al., 2015). As a consequence, something as simple as the room temperature can impact psychological processes, such as reducing social distance (IJzerman & Semin, 2009) and alleviating loneliness (Bargh & Shalev, 2012). Broadly speaking, physical warmth makes people more oriented towards others, which has different manifestations depending on the affordances of the task and the environment. As previous work has shown, physical warmth leads people to conform to others’ evaluations and motivates them to affiliate with others (Fay & Maner, 2012; 2015; Huang, Zhang, Hui, & Wyer, 2013).
If physical warmth motivates people to conform and to affiliate, physical warmth might also foster affirmative responses more generally. Such an affirmative (i.e., acquiescent) response bias can by influenced by interpersonal processes (Smith, 2004) and might thus also be operant when one is motivated to affiliate. Therefore, we test the hypothesis that physical warmth increases affirmative response behavior. If this is indeed the case, physical warmth has a much broader impact on social cognition and motivation than previously thought: Over and above affecting what people think and do, physical warmth might generally affect how people respond to questionnaires and experiments. Because physical warmth primes people with affiliation (Fay & Maner, 2015), we expect that physical warmth also primes people to affiliate with the researcher asking the questions, and thereby invokes more affirmative, acquiescent response behavior. We investigate this hypothesis in different response contexts.

Study 1: Physical warmth affects how participants respond to questions
In our first study, we measured participants’ subjective feelings of warmth, as has been done in previous research (IJzerman & Semin, 2010). To this end, we assessed participants’ subjective feeling of the ambient temperature (e.g., how warm or cold do you currently feel?) and use this measure as the independent variable. As a measure of response style, participants worked on a widely-used self-construal questionnaire (Singelis, 1994) that consists of two distinct scales for an independent and interdependent self-construal. Importantly, these two scales are uncorrelated in the literature (Singelis, 1994; Singelis, Bond, Sharkey, & Lai, 1999). Because we expect physical warmth to alter responses in a way that leads to more endorsement of unrelated concepts, we expect and find a positive correlation between how warm people feel and their responses on the Singelis items. In other words, the warmer people felt, the more they affirmed to all items of the Singelis scale, regardless of their content. Thus, feeling warm biased response behavior toward affirmation.

Study 2: The response bias increases when the audience is a friend
In our second study, we set out to explore whether affiliation directly affects the influence of physical warmth on response behavior. We used the same experimental design as in Study 1, where participants reported how warm or cold they felt, and responded to the combined Singelis scale. In addition, we varied the target audience of participants’ responses by having them imagine that their answers would be read by a complete stranger (similar to Study 1, as the researcher reading the responses as a stranger) or by a close friend. In the stranger condition, we replicated Study 1, as participants showed more affirmation on the Singelis scale the warmer they felt. In the friend condition, this correlation between subjective warmth and response behavior was amplified. Thus, when the audience was a friend (a common target of affiliation), participants’ responses were even more biased, the warmer they felt.

Study 3: Physical warmth affects how participants respond in memory tasks
Study 3 investigated the influence of temperature on response biases in the basic cognitive domain of memory performance. Specifically, to manipulate participants’ feeling of temperature, we seated them in a cold versus warm laboratory room (similar to Steinmetz & Mussweiler, 2011). Next, participants engaged in a standard memory recognition paradigm that allows measuring liberal versus conservative response biases (Roediger & McDermott, 1995). We expect and find that physical warmth fostered affirmative response behavior (independent of performance), which resulted in a larger bias toward affirming that an item has been seen (versus has not been seen). These results indicate that the physical temperature does not affect overall memory performance, but rather influences responses by biasing them towards affirming that an item had been presented.

In three studies, we demonstrate that physical temperature affects how people respond to questions in experiments and questionnaires (i.e., when communicating with the researcher asking these questions). Because physical warmth can induce affiliation, physical warmth can lead to a higher affirmative bias in the communication with the researcher. More specifically, physical warmth fosters affirmation to items and scales (Study 1). This bias increases with a higher motivation to affiliate and becomes more pronounced when responses are understood as communication with a friend (Study 2). Furthermore, physical warmth biases responses towards more affirmative (i.e., liberally biased) answers to neutral items in a memory test (Study 3).

Generally speaking, our results highlight that physical warmth affects how people respond in questionnaires and experiments. Thereby, physical warmth might, for instance, produce false positive results by producing affirmation to neutral items and by fostering correlations between unrelated items.

First of all, we would like to thank Hans IJzerman for his feedback and expertise, which proved to be very valuable. More generally, the EASP seedcorn grant allowed us to test our expected effect in several different response domains, and to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms at play. These studies were presented at the ESCON Transfer of Knowledge conference in Lisbon in August 2016, and will be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology .


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  • Huang, X. I., Zhang, M., Hui, M. K., & Wyer Jr, R. S. (2013). Warmth and conformity: The effects of ambient temperature on product preferences and financial decisions. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 241-250.
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  • Smith, P. B. (2004). Acquiescent response bias as an aspect of cultural communication style. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35, 50-61.
  • Steinmetz, J., & Mussweiler, T. (2011). Breaking the ice: How physical warmth shapes social comparison consequences. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1025-1028.
  • Steinmetz, J., & Posten, A.-C. (in press). Physical temperature affects response behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.