Touch Affects How People Feel

It turns out there is a deeper truth behind metaphors like "heavy situation," "rough day" and "hard-hearted."

THE GIST:

- Our sense of touch influences how we feel and act in unrelated situations.

- There is a deeper truth behind metaphors like "heavy situation," "rough day."

- By understanding the connections between touch, feelings and actions, you may be able to influence what other people think or do.

Sitting on a hard chair, carrying a heavy bag, or leaning against the rough bark of a tree can subconsciously affect the way we feel about other people and the decisions we make about how to act in completely unrelated situations, suggests a new study.

The study was one of the first to probe metaphors about the sense of touch -- such as a heavy subject or a rough day -- and to find that those metaphors have real-world consequences in what we think and do.

The findings might help people learn how to influence the thoughts and behaviors of others. Giving a potential employer something heavy to hold, for example, could make her take you more seriously.

"It turns out these metaphors reflect a real connection between our physical and mental understanding of the world," said Joshua Ackerman, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the study, which appears today in the journal Science. "Everything we think is in some way tied to the physical experiences we have."

To explore how the sense of touch plays into our mental understanding of the world -- a link that hasn't received much attention from researchers -- Ackerman and colleagues performed six experiments that probed three common categories of touch: Weight, texture and hardness.

For each category, the researchers looked to explore popular metaphors. In a test of the idea that heaviness refers to something important and serious, as in "the gravity of the situation," for example, the researchers found that people who simply held a heavy clipboard rated job candidates as better and more serious about a job.

Compared to people who held a lighter clipboard, the weighted group also chose to allocate more money to serious social issues in a public policy scenario.

In the texture category, the researchers tested metaphors such as "having a rough day" and "using coarse language," by giving people a puzzle to solve that was either smooth or covered in sand paper. After reading a passage about an ambiguous social interaction, people who had played with the rough puzzle rated the interaction as harsher and more negative.

They also acted more generously in a lottery game that told them they had to split their winnings with another anonymous player -- because they thought the interaction wasn't going well and they feared that offering less would cause the stranger to cancel the winnings altogether.

In a final pair of experiments, the scientists tested metaphors like "hard-hearted" and "she's a rock" by first having people touch either a wooden block or a soft blanket as part of a magic trick.

Later, those who had touched the block rated a hypothetical employee as being more rigid and less willing to change after reading about an ambiguous interaction with the boss. Even sitting on a hard chair, the study found, made people less likely to veer from their original offers to a negotiating car-dealer.

Across the board, there was about a 25 percent difference in how people behaved when given something heavy, rough or hard. About 50 people participated in each experiment.

The findings suggest a number of ways that people could use texture to manipulate or influence others. Pollsters might want to add weight to the clipboards they give people, for one. Businesses might want to place softer cushions on chairs in their negotiation rooms.

Even manufacturers might want to make their packaging smooth or their products weightier. A previous study found that people thought water tasted worse if they drank it out of a flimsy cup, Ackerman pointed out.

"This work is just really nice in showing that one of the main ways in which we interact with the world -- through our tactile sensations -- can have such strong and meaningful effects on higher-order cognition," said Lawrence Williams, a psychologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Leeds School of Business.

"If you are seeking to influence other people, then having an understanding of these tactile effects would presumably give you the upper hand."