When you are deciding who to hire for a job, or who to go out on date with, what kinds of information influence your decision? Do you consider his or her education and background? Sure I do. What about friendliness and social skill? Of course. And physical appearance? You bet.
What about the kind of chair you happen to be sitting in while making your decision? Or perhaps the kind of object you happen to be holding in your hand? My chair? No – nothing like that could possibly be affecting my judgments, right?
Wrong. Your sense of touch is influencing you a lot more than you realize.
Most of us have grown accustomed to the idea that our mood, and even our judgments, can be influenced by unrelated experiences of sight and sound – we feel happier on sunny days, more relaxed when listening to certain kinds of music, and more likely to lose our tempers when it’s hot and humid. But very few of us have even considered the possibility that our tactile experience – the sensations associated with the things we touch, might have this same power.
New research shows that the weight, texture, and hardness of the things we touch are, in fact, unconsciously factored into our decisions about things that have nothing to do with what we are touching. Potentially, every decision we make.
Let’s start with weight. Heaviness is something that we usually associate with seriousness and importance. Consider expressions like the “gravity of the situation,” the trouble “weighs heavily upon him,” or she is “carefree and light-hearted.” So what happens when we make a decision while we are holding something heavy?
In one study, people who held a clipboard that was nearly 10 times heavier than their peers rated a job candidate they were reviewing as much better overall, and as having displayed more serious interest in the position. In a second study, heavy clipboard holders recommended allocating significantly more government funding to serious social issues (like pollution) than lighter clipboard holders. So when we are holding something heavy, we see seriousness and importance in people and issues that we might not otherwise.
(Tip: Perhaps if you want to make the best impression at an interview, you should start by asking your potential employer to please hang on to your set of encyclopedias, that you just happen to bring along, while you use the restroom.)
Next, the researchers examined the effects of texture. We associate smoothness and roughness with ease and difficulty, respectively, as in expressions like “smooth sailing,” and “rough road ahead.” Once again, the studies show that people unconsciously transfer their tactile experience of roughness to their interpersonal decisions. For instance, people who completed a puzzle with pieces that had been covered in sandpaper later described an interaction between two other individuals as more difficult and awkward than those whose puzzles had been smooth. In another study, feeling roughness led participants to negotiate poorly, offering their opponent a better deal than the smoothness-feelers offered, because they saw the bargaining task as more difficult.
(Tip: Never try to buy a car or negotiate a raise while wearing a wool sweater. Consider satin underpants instead. Everything seems easy in satin underpants.)
Lastly, the researchers studied the effects of experiences of hardness and softness. We often associate hardness with qualities like stability, rigidness, and strictness, and softness with flexibility and yielding. Consider expressions like “an iron will” and she “melted like butter.”
As with weight and texture, hardness exerts an influence on our perceptions and behavior. People who had earlier examined a hard piece of wood judged an employee interacting with his boss as more rigid and strict than did people who had examined a soft blanket instead.
The tactile experience doesn’t always have to come through your hands, either. In a second study, the researchers found that sitting in a hard wooden chair (instead of a soft cushioned one) made participants adopt more rigid, less cooperative negotiation strategies. Each person was told to make an initial offer for a new car (worth $16,000). After their first offer was rejected, they were told to make a another. Hard chair sitters’ second offer was, on average, $350 closer to their first offer than soft chair sitters – in other words, the hard chair sitters didn’t want to budge from what they had originally said the car was worth. They had a feeling they should stick to their guns, completely unaware that this feeling was coming from their backside. (Perhaps this is the origin of the expression “hardass”?)
(Tip: When you want someone to grant your request, start out by making sure they are seated on something soft. Or, perhaps, stroking a cat.)
In all seriousness, we are more strongly influenced by all of our senses in ways most of us fail to realize. It’s worth taking the time to think not only about the sights and sounds and smells, but also the things you touch most frequently – the furniture in your home and workspace, your clothing, your bedding. Would work seem easier with a lighter laptop? Would your coworkers get along better with plush seats in the conference room? You can make whatever you’re touching work to your best advantage. Trust me, folks – this is hard science.