July 12, 2010

Touch Affects Impressions, Decisions

Image of a hand surrounded by items of different textures

The physical characteristics of something you’re touching can influence your feelings about unrelated events, situations and objects, according to new research. Among the findings, heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions seem more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations.

From infancy, we use our hands to explore and interact with our environment. Even before we begin using our hands to perform specific tasks, they play an important role in helping us to learn, communicate and develop social bonds. Given how important tactile sensations are to our development, 3 psychologists—Dr. John A. Bargh of Yale, Dr. Joshua M. Ackerman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Christopher C. Nocera of Harvard—designed a series of experiments to test whether the characteristics of an object can affect our judgment about unrelated things.

The researchers focused on weight, texture and hardness because these characteristics are often used as metaphors. Weight is metaphorically associated with concepts of seriousness and importance—for example, a "weighty matter" or "light reading." Roughness and smoothness are associated with difficulty and harshness; think of "a rough day" or "smooth sailing." Hardness and softness are associated with stability, rigidity and strictness, as in being "hard-hearted" or "soft on someone." The study was supported by NIH and described in the June 25, 2010, edition of Science.

In one experiment, the researchers recruited 54 people walking along streets near campus. They asked the people to evaluate a job candidate by reviewing resumes on either light or heavy clipboards. The researchers found that participants holding heavy clipboards rated the candidates as better overall and more serious about the position.

In another study, 64 people were asked to complete a puzzle, either with pieces covered in rough sandpaper or with smooth pieces. Then they read a passage describing a social interaction. The participants who’d completed the rough puzzle rated the interaction as more difficult and harsh than those who’d completed the smooth puzzle.

To test hardness, 49 passersby were asked to examine either a soft blanket or a hard block of wood. They then watched an interaction between a boss and an employee. Those who’d felt the hard block judged the employee to be more rigid and strict than those who’d felt the soft blanket.

In another test, 86 people engaged in mock haggling over the price of a new car. Those sitting in hard chairs turned out to be less willing to compromise on price than those sitting in soft chairs.

Physical concepts such as weight, roughness and hardness are among the first that infants develop. Bargh says these sensations help create the mental scaffold upon which we build our understandings of the world. "The old concepts of mind-body dualism are turning out not to be true at all," Bargh says. "Our minds are deeply and organically linked to our bodies."

—by Harrison Wein, Ph.D.

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