25 June 2010

Tactile sensations have profound effect on decision making

by Kate Melville

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:

These experiments suggest that information acquired through touch exerts broad, if generally imperceptible, influence over cognition, say the researchers. They propose that encounters with objects can elicit a "haptic mindset," triggering application of associated concepts even to unrelated people and situations.

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.

Magnetic field alters moral judgments
Risky business and a woman's touch
Cleanliness next to goodliness
Color red makes men behave "like animals"

Source: Harvard University, Yale University