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Touch: how a hard chair creates a hard heart

June 24, 2010
Courtesy of Yale University 
and World Science staff

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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Through textures, shapes, weights and temperatures, the sense of touch influences both our thoughts and behavior, researchers have found. In a series of six experiments documented in the June 25 issue of the 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 along with former Yale researchers Joshua M. Ackerman, now of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Christopher C. Nocera of Harvard. The work builds on a 2008 study by Bargh’s with 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 notes that physical concepts such as roughness, hardness, and warmth are among the first that infants develop. They are 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, he said. Touch is a very important sense for exploration of the world, he added, and so these sensations help create the mental scaffold upon which we build our understandings of the world as we grow older. 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.