A fascinating study in this week’s Science shows that interpersonal interactions can be shaped, profoundly yet unconsciously, by the physical attributes of incidental objects. The researchers, from Yale University and Harvard University, demonstrated that resumes reviewed on a heavy clipboard are judged to be more substantive, while a negotiator seated in a soft chair is less likely to drive a hard bargain.
The study’s authors say the work suggests touch – the first of our senses to develop – may continue throughout life as a scaffold upon which we build our social judgments and decisions. “Touch remains perhaps the most underappreciated sense in behavioral research,” says study co-author Christopher C. Nocera, from Harvard’s Department of Psychology. “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 study involved a series of experiments probing how objects’ weight, texture, and hardness can unconsciously influence judgments about unrelated events and situations. Amongst the findings:
- To assess the effects of weight, metaphorically associated with seriousness and importance, subjects used either light or heavy clipboards while evaluating resumes. They judged candidates whose resumes were seen on a heavy clipboard as better qualified and more serious about the position, and rated their own accuracy at the task as more important.
- An examination of texture’s effects had participants arrange rough or smooth puzzle pieces before hearing a story about a social interaction. Those who worked with the rough puzzle were likelier to describe the interaction in the story as uncoordinated and harsh.
- In a test of hardness, subjects handled either a soft blanket or a hard wooden block before being told an ambiguous story about a workplace interaction between a supervisor and an employee. Those who touched the block judged the employee as more rigid and strict.
- A second hardness experiment showed that even passive touch can shape interactions, as subjects seated in hard or soft chairs engaged in mock haggling over the price of a new car. Subjects in hard chairs were less flexible, showing less movement between successive offers.
The researchers posit that because touch is likely to be the first sense we use to experience the world – for example, by equating the warm and gentle touch of our mother with comfort and safety – it may provide the framework on which metaphorical abstraction is based. And, they say, this physical-to-mental abstraction is reflected in metaphors and shared linguistic descriptors, such as the multiple meanings of words like “hard,” “rough,” and “heavy.”
The use of “tactile tactics” may represent a new frontier in social influence and communication, they suggest. “First impressions are liable to be influenced by the tactile environment, and control over this environment may be especially important for negotiators, pollsters, job seekers, and others interested in interpersonal communication,” they conclude.