How you think you assess and explore new things? You might assume that you do it primarily through sight, right? If I have a cool new gadget, the first words out of your mouth would likely be, “Can I see it?” Chances are, though, that when you say that, you’ll also extend your arm and open your hand. Seeing isn’t all there is. You want to touch, feel, hold and manipulate unfamiliar things.
The way those objects feel in your hands have a significant influence on the judgments you form about them. Past research has shown that shoppers understand and form impressions more readily about products with which they can physically interact and that tactile sensations can influence their perceptions and opinions of products’ quality. This happens even when touching a product doesn’t give any clues about its quality, like when shoppers said that water from a firm bottle seemed to taste better than water from a flimsy bottle. Findings like this have led psychologists to suggest that touch experiences might create a “scaffold” for the development of conceptual knowledge. In other words, mental action may be grounded in physical action, and sensory and motor processes are fundamental to some aspects of cognition.
In a study recently published in Science, researchers tested how three tactile sensations – weight, texture and hardness – influence perceptions, judgments and decisions of and about unrelated situations, people and objects. They found that touching objects can trigger a “haptic [relating to or based on the sense of touch] mindset” and cause people to apply concepts related to those sensations (texture and someone being “rough around the edges,” for example) to interpersonal interactions.
Joshua Ackerman, Christopher Nocera and John Bargh (from MIT, Harvard and Yale, respectively) conducted six experiments to see how weight, texture and hardness affected decision making and the formation of social impressions in people they met on the street. In one of the weight-related experiments, 54 passersby were asked to evaluate a job candidate by reviewing resumes on either light (3/4 lb) or heavy (4 1/2 lb) clipboards. Weight is associated seriousness and importance, a la “weighty matters” and the “gravity of the situation.” Sure enough, the people who reviewed the resume on the heavy clipboard 1) rated the the candidate as better suited for the position 2) said the candidate displayed more serious interest and 3) rated their own accuracy on the task as more important than the participants using the light clipboard did.
In the texture experiment, 64 people read a description of an ambiguous social interaction and were asked about the nature of the interaction, specifically, whether it was adversarial or friendly. Before they read the story, though, the participants completed a puzzle, the pieces of which were covered either with sandpaper or left bare. The participants who completed the sandpaper-covered puzzle rated the interaction as more adversarial and harsh than the participants who completed the smooth puzzle, consistent with rough textures’ metaphorical relationship harshness and difficulty (“a rough day,” “coarse language”).
To see if texture affected people’s social decisions, 42 participants first completed either the smooth or rough puzzle and then played an Ultimatum game where they received 10 tickets for a $50 lottery and could choose any of the tickets to an anonymous participant. If the other person accepted the ticket offer, great; if not, all the tickets were forfeited. Participants who completed the rough puzzle offered more lottery tickets than those who did the smooth puzzle, suggesting that they were primed for difficult social interaction and hence used compensatory bargaining behavior.
The last two experiments focused on hardness, which is associated with stability and rigidity (“he’s my rock” and “hard-hearted”). In one experiment, 49 people were asked to watch a magic act and then guess the secret. First, though, they got to examine the object to be used – either a soft piece of blanket or a hard block of wood – and verify that there wasn’t anything odd unusual about them. The act was then postponed indefinitely while the participants read a description of an interaction between a boss and an employee and evaluated the employee’s rigidity/strictness. Those who felt the wooden block rated the employee as more rigid/strict than those who felt the blanket.
The final experiment tested whether or not passive touch experiences could affect decision-making like active manipulation of objects had. Eighty-six participants were “primed by the seat of their pants” and sat in either hard wooden chairs or soft cushioned one while completing an impression formation task similar to the previous experiment and a negotiation task. This negotiation had participants pretending to shop for a new car (sticker price $16,500) and making two offers on the car (the second assuming that the dealer rejected the first offer). Comparable to the previous experiment, people who sat in the hard chairs said the employee was more stable than did participants who sat in the soft chairs. In the negotiation, hard chair participants changed their price between the two offers by a lesser amount than the soft chair participants did, suggesting that a haptic mindset can be triggered even when touch occur in body parts beside the hands and even when an object is not being actively manipulated.
It’s sort of the opposite of what Funkadelic would have you believe: free your ass and your mind will follow. While the idea of your butt or your hands or your feet having such power over your brain might seem a little odd, researchers in the field of embodied cognition have spent decades chipping away at the idea that mind and body are so separate from each other. Past studies have demonstrated that kids who use their hands while solving math problems have an easier time of it, that actors can remember lines more easily when moving and that holding a warm cup of coffee makes you more generous.
If physical sensation and movement has such a strong influence on our thoughts, though, is manipulating the mind as easy as buying heavier clipboards and upholstering the furniture? While the study might provide some lessons for job candidates, pollsters and car salesmen on manipulating their environment to bend social interactions in their favor, the authors note that this sort of exploitation is only easy when people are distracted and that paying attention to your surroundings diminishes the effects of these tactile cues. In other words, you’d do well to watch where you sit.
Reference: Ackerman JM, Nocera CC, & Bargh JA (2010). Incidental haptic sensations influence social judgments and decisions. Science (New York, N.Y.), 328 (5986), 1712-5 PMID: 20576894