Heavy, rough and hard – how the things we touch affect our judgments and decisions

By Ed Yong | June 25, 2010 9:00 am


When you pick up an object, you might think that you are manipulating it, but in a sense, it is also manipulating you. Through a series of six psychological experiments, Joshua Ackerman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that the properties that we feel through touch – texture, hardness, weight – can all influence the way we think.

Weight is linked to importance, so that people carrying heavy objects deem interview candidates as more serious and social problems as more pressing. Texture is linked to difficulty and harshness. Touching rough sandpaper makes social interactions seem more adversarial, while smooth wood makes them seem friendlier. Finally, hardness is associated with rigidity and stability. When sitting on a hard chair, negotiators take tougher stances but if they sit on a soft one instead, they become more flexible.

These influences are not trivial – they can sway how people react in important ways, including how much money they part with, how cooperative they are with strangers, or how they judge an interview candidate.

First off, in two experiments reminiscent of another study I’ve written about, Ackerman showed that holding a light or heavy clipboard can affect a person’s decision-making. In a study of 54 volunteers, those who clutched the heavier board rated a job candidate more highly based on their resume, and thought that they displayed a more serious interest in the job. They even rated their own assessments as being more important! However, the boards didn’t affect the recruits’ judgments on areas unrelated to importance, such as the candidate’s ability to get along with others.

In a second test with 43 volunteers, those who held the heavier boards were more likely to call for government funds to be spent on serious social matters like setting air pollution standards, over more trivial affairs like public toilet regulations. Again, the mere feeling of weight appears to influence the importance we give to matters.

In the next experiments, Ackerman asked recruits to complete a puzzle with pieces that were either smooth and varnished, or covered in rough sandpaper. 64 volunteers were then asked to read a transcript of an ambiguous social interaction. Those who touched the rough pieces found the liaison to be harsher and more adversarial than those who touched the smooth pieces, but no less familiar.

This also affected the decisions they made. After completing the puzzle, Ackerman asked 42 people to play an Ultimatum game, where they had to decide how many lottery tickets to give to a (fake) partner, out of a total of ten. The catch is that if the partner refuses the offer, all the tickets are confiscated. Wary of this, players who touched the rough pieces (and were primed for harsh and difficult dealings) offered more tickets outright than those who touched the smooth pieces.

Ackerman also looked at the influence of an object’s hardness. He asked 49 volunteers to touch either a hard block of word or a soft blanket, under the pretence of examining objects to be used in a magic act. Afterwards, when they read an interaction between a boss and an employee, those who felt the wood thought the employee was stricter and more rigid than those who touched the blanket (but no less positive). It doesn’t have to be the hands that do the touching either – when he repeated the same task with 86 volunteers who sat in either a hard, wooden chair or a soft, cushioned one, he found the same results. “We primed participants by the seat of their pants,” he writes.

The chair experiment also gave Ackerman the opportunity to test the effect of hardness on decision-making. He asked his recruits to place two offers on a $16,500 car, the second following a straight refusal of the first by the dealer. While the volunteers offered the same average amount at first, those who sat on the softer seats offered far more on their second go than on their first. That’s consistent with the idea that hardness has connotations of rigidity and stability. People who feel hard sensations are less likely to shift in their decisions. Harder chairs made for harder hearts.

In all six experiments, the effects were very specific. People deemed conversations to be stricter after touching a hard object, but not more positive. Heavy boards make interview candidates seem more serious but not more sociable. As Ackerman says, “These findings emphasize the power of that unique adaptation, the hand, to manipulate the mind as well as the environment.” And the last study with the chair suggests that even our buttocks have some sway over our minds.

According to Ackerman, these effects happen because our understanding of abstract concepts is deeply rooted in physical experiences. Touch is the first of our senses to develop. In the earliest days of our lives, our ability to feel things like texture and temperature provides a tangible framework that we can use to understand more nebulous notions like importance or personal warmth. Eventually, the two become tied together, so that touching objects can activate the concepts that they are associated with.

This idea is known as “embodied cognition” and the metaphors and idioms in our languages provide hints about such associations. The link between weight and importance comes through in phrases such as “heavy matters” and the “gravity of the situation”. We show the link between texture and harshness when we describe a “rough day” or “coarse language”. And the link between hardness and stability or rigidity becomes clear when we describe someone as “hard-hearted” or “being a rock”.

Al l of the effects that Ackerman demonstrated were small but statistically significant. They’re sizeable enough to have serious implications for our day-to-day lives. The way we interact with our peers, our chances of getting a job, and maybe even our voting choices could all be influenced, quite literally, by whatever’s at hand. As Ackerman writes, “Perhaps the use of such “tactile tactics” will represent the next advance in social influence and communication.”

Reference: Science http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1189993

Image by Chonophotos

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Comments (5)

  1. Perhaps that’s why our PM spent a billion plus on the G8/G20 meetings–he needed to make sure their chairs were cushiony.

  2. Ellen

    Very thought provoking. These conclusions would undermine the tactic used by some negotiators when hosting a meeting: directing their “opponent” to the least comfortable chair to supposedly undermine the opponent’s confidence. Perhaps it would be best to see that they have the cushiest perch instead, to soften them up.

    I am puzzled by one point though: in paragraph 10, “People deemed conversations to be stricter after touching a hard object, but not more positive. ” I’m unclear just what is meant by a conversation being “strict.” I tried to look up the article, but they want $$$. Perhaps my chair is too hard….

  3. Christopher C. Nocera

    Hello Ellen,

    I came across your post and as I am one of the co-author’s on the paper, it seemed only fair to offer you some clarification. With each type of touch we studied (hard/soft, rough/smooth, heavy/light) we did two types of studies: a Behavioral and a Perceptual.

    The behavioral studies involve study subjects interacting and making choices for themselves based on the interactions.

    The perceptual studies on the other hand, involve the subject forming an impression of someone else in a passive role. In other words, they observe other people interacting and are not directly involved. This could be in the form of a live interaction, a video or even a transcript.

    The particular study you asked about was a perceptual task and involved and interaction between an employee and their boss. The study subjects were asked to form an impression and then evaluate the employee’s personality across an impression scale that included a list of trait terms (e.g. permissive, open-minded, trusting…… using 1-7 (“not at all” to “very”) scales.

    What we hope to find was that people who participated in the study who touched the wood block (hard to manipulate) would answer the questions in such a way that labeled the employee as being strict (e.g. labeling the employee as non-permissive, close-minded…) whereas the people who interacted with the soft (e.g. malleable) cloth would do the opposite. This was what we found.

    Hope this helps. Please ask for further clarification if you still have questions.


    Christopher Nocera

  4. Mark

    Sitting on a soft chair right now, but still having a hard time swallowing this.

    Mr. Nocera’s response above clearly illustrates the problem with the study: they found exactly what they wanted to find.

  5. Samba

    With no cultural control group it’s impossible to tell whether the results reported are cultural artifacts or not. Were all these people educated? Do they spend most of their time,like so many educated people ,herding abstractions,or did you test some people who do physical work and are aware of thinking with their whole bodies? Carpenters can’t let the weight of a tool effect the accuracy of measurement. Test some musicians who use highly developed proprioception to be extremely accurate with the motions of controlling their instruments without being thrown by the emotional content of the moment,but rather than ignoring it give it expression . Test some advanced practicioners of martial arts that secifically address these areas, like Aikido ,Tai Chi and Kung Fu and see what they register. Treating physical perception as if it affects thought ,while reflecting a familiar cultural bias ,seems delusory. Science generally doesn’t recognize a mechanism for mind body seperation so how could movement and touch not effect thought. Nerve endings are part of the brain and perception is part of thought.


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