How Things You Touch Influence the Way You Think

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Call it matter over mind: a new study shows that objects you touch may influence the way you think and behave.

Our sense of touch is essential to the understanding of our environment. From infancy, we begin feeling our way around, exploring and interpreting our surroundings through touch — learning to equate a mother’s warm hand, for instance, with a sense of care.

So the theory goes that our early method of gathering information forms a “mental scaffold” upon which we build conceptual knowledge in adulthood. In other words, experiences of touch may influence experiences of the mind, including the way we make sense of the world around us. (Which helps explain such descriptive idioms as “having a rough day” and “taking a hard line,” as the study’s authors point out.)

Now, in a series of experiments led by Joshua Ackerman at MIT, researchers set out to test how people’s tactile sensibilities affect their social judgments and decisions — even when the physical input has nothing to do with the matter at hand. The study, published this week in Science, found that a person’s exposure to objects of different weight, texture and hardness sends unconscious but powerful cues to the brain.

In the first experiment, researchers asked 54 passersby to evaluate a job candidate by reviewing a resume — which was presented on either a light or heavy clipboard. Compared with people given the light boards, participants who held the heavy clipboards rated the candidate as better qualified overall and, specifically, as having more serious interest in the position (appreciating the “gravity of the situation,” perhaps). People holding heavy clipboards also rated the accuracy of their own judgments to be more important.

In another study, 64 participants were tasked with completing a five-piece puzzle — one had pieces covered in rough sandpaper, while the other puzzle was smooth. Participants were then asked to read a description of a social interaction and to evaluate its “social coordination quality” — that is, whether it seemed friendly versus adversarial or cooperative versus competitive. Overall, people who completed the rough puzzle tended to view the interaction as being difficult, harsh and argumentative — qualities that are all metaphorically associated with roughness.

“Touch remains perhaps the most underappreciated sense in behavioral research,” said co-author Christopher Nocera, a graduate student in Harvard’s department of psychology, in a statement. “Our work suggests that greetings involving touch, such as handshakes and cheek kisses, may in fact have critical influences on our social interactions, in an unconscious fashion.”

The researchers’ two final experiments assessed the effect of exposure to something hard. In the first study, people were given either a hard block of wood or a soft piece of blanket to examine, then asked to evaluate a social interaction (as in the puzzle study), this time specifically judging the personality of one of the two people involved. Those given the hard block of wood were more likely than participants who held the blanket to perceive the target person as rigid and unyielding.

The last experiment investigated whether this “haptic mindset” could be triggered through passive rather than active touch — so, instead of giving people something to hold, researchers had them sit in either a hard wooden seat or a plush, cushioned chair. Participants were then asked to imagine themselves shopping for a car and negotiating down the sticker price: as you would expect, compared with people perched on cushions, those sitting on wooden seats drove a much harder bargain.

“It is behavioral priming through the seat of the pants,” said co-author John Bargh of Yale University, in a statement. The current work takes off on a previous study by Bargh, which found that holding a hot cup of coffee encouraged people to judge others as warm and caring, while holding a cold pack made them behave less generously.

“First impressions are liable to be influenced by one’s tactile environment,” the authors write, suggesting that manipulation of touch could come in handy for negotiators, pollsters, job seekers, marketers and anyone else with a stake in interpersonal evaluations. “Perhaps the use of such ‘tactile tactics’ will represent the next advance in social influence and communication.”

For the average Joe just looking for a break, it might be as easy as handing your potential employer a hefty portfolio and offering your date a hot toddy on a comfy couch.

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