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.
Gravity affects not just our bodies and our behaviours, but our very thoughts. That’s the fascinating conclusion of a new study which shows that simply holding a heavy object can affect the way we think. A simple heavy clipboard can makes issues seem weightier – when holding one, volunteers think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues.
In a variety of languages, from English to Dutch to Chinese, importance is often described by words pertaining to weight. We speak of ‘heavy news, ‘weighty matters’ and ‘light entertainment’. We weigh up the value of evidence, we lend weight to arguments with facts, and our opinions carry weight if we wield influence and authority. These are more than just quirks of language – they reflect real links that our minds make between weight and importance.
Nils Jostmann from the University of Amsterdam demonstrated the link between weight and importance through a quartet of experiments. In each one, a different set of volunteers held a clipboard that either weighed 1.5 pounds or 2.3 pounds.
The extra 0.8 pounds were enough to make volunteers think that a foreign currency was worth more money. Forty volunteers were asked to guess the conversion rates between euros and six other currencies, indicating their estimate by marking a straight line. Those who held the heavier clipboard valued the currencies more generously, even though a separate questionnaire showed that they felt the same about the euro.
Money, of course, does have its own weight, so for his next trick, Jostmann wanted to stay entirely within the abstract realm. He considered justice – an area that is free of weight but hardly free of importance. Jostmann showed 50 volunteers a scenario where a university committee was denying students the opportunity to voice their opinions on a study grant. It was a potentially weighty issue, but more so to the students who held the heavy clipboard. They felt it was more important that the university listened to the students’ opinions.
You are not alone. Even if you’re currently reading this in complete isolation, you are still far from a singular individual. You’re more of a colony – one human, together with microbes in their trillions. For every one of your own genes, your body is also host to thousands of bacterial ones. Some of the most important of these tenants – the microbiota – live in our gut. Their genes, collectively known as our microbiome, provide us with the ability to break down sources of food, like complex carbohydrates, that we would otherwise find completely indigestible.
Peter Turnbaugh from the Washington University School of Medicine has spent his career studying the microbiome. His latest work reveals both tremendous differences and similarities between the bacterial tenants of our digestive systems. Your bowels may be home to very different species of bacteria to mine, but both our sets share a core group of genes.
Turnbaugh likens the situation within our guts to that of islands. Real islands may be home to very different species of animals but all have representatives that perform certain roles; there will always be grazers, predators, insect-eating specialists, fishermen and so on. Across islands, animals approach a set of core lifestyles in different ways, and so it is with the microbiota – every man is an island, home to unique collections of bacteria that nonetheless carry out some core functions. And the further an person’s microbiota strays from this standard template, the more likely they are to be obese.