Jul 10, 2010

Touch: how a hard chair creates a hard heart

Through tex­tures, shapes, weights and tem­per­a­tures, the sense of tou­ch in­flu­ences both our thoughts and be­hav­ior, re­search­ers have found.

In six ex­pe­ri­ments doc­u­mented in the June 25 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence, a Yale Uni­vers­ity-led team of psy­chol­o­gists said they showed how dra­mat­ic­ally our sense of tou­ch af­fects how we view the world.

In­ter­view­ers hold­ing a heavy clip­board, com­pared to a light one, thought job ap­pli­cants took their work more se­ri­ous­ly. Sub­jects who read a pas­sage about an in­ter­ac­tion be­tween two peo­ple were more likely to char­ac­ter­ize it as ad­ver­sar­ial if they had first han­dled rough jig­saw puz­zle pieces, com­pared to smooth ones. And peo­ple sit­ting in hard, cush­ion­less chairs were less will­ing to com­pro­mise in price ne­gotia­t­ions than peo­ple who sat in soft, com­fort­a­ble chairs.

“It is be­hav­ioral prim­ing through the seat of the pants,” said John A. Bargh of Yale, co-author of the pa­per.

The work builds on a 2008 study by Bargh and Yale Ph.D. stu­dent Law­rence Wil­liams, now of the Uni­vers­ity of Col­o­rad­o, which found that peo­ple judge oth­er peo­ple to be more gen­er­ous and car­ing af­ter they had briefly held a warm cup of cof­fee, rath­er than a cold drink.

“The old con­cepts of mind-body du­al­is­m,” or separa­t­ion, “are turn­ing out not to be true at all,” Bargh said. “Our minds are deeply and or­gan­ic­ally linked to our bod­ies.”

Bargh said phys­i­cal con­cepts such as rough­ness, hard­ness, and warmth are among the first that in­fants de­vel­op; they’re crit­i­cal to how young chil­dren and adults even­tu­ally de­vel­op ab­stract con­cepts about peo­ple and rela­t­ion­ships, such as dis­cern­ing the mean­ing of a warm smile or a hard heart. Tou­ch is a very im­por­tant sense for ex­plora­t­ion of the world, he added, and so these sensa­t­ions help cre­ate the men­tal scaf­fold on which we build our un­der­stand­ings of the world.

This real­ity, he notes, is re­flected in many ever­yday ex­pres­sions such as “weigh­ing in with an opin­ion,” “hav­ing a rough day” or “tak­ing a hard line.”

“These phys­i­cal ex­periences not only shape the founda­t­ion of our thoughts and per­cep­tions, but in­flu­ence our be­hav­ior to­wards oth­ers, some­times just be­cause we are sit­ting in a hard in­stead of a soft chair,” Bargh said.

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