What we touch unconsciously influences how we think, says MIT Sloan professor

Joshua Ackerman Professor Joshua Ackerman

Series of experiments with weight, texture and hardness hold broad implications

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jun. 25, 2010 — Heavy objects make job candidates appear more important, while rough objects make social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increase rigidity in negotiations, according to new research findings by a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Through a series of experiments, Joshua Ackerman, an assistant professor of marketing at MIT Sloan, tested how three dimensions of touch—that of weight, texture and hardness—can unconsciously influence judgments and decisions about unrelated events, situations, and objects. The results hold implications for marketers and negotiators to job seekers and employers to everyday people who simply want to make more informed decisions.

“What we touch unconsciously influences how we think,” says Ackerman. “In situations where evaluations and decisions really matter, we need to pay attention to our physical surroundings and, in particular, how we engage these surroundings through our sense of touch.”

Ackerman and two colleagues, John Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale University, and Christopher Nocera, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, conducted a series of six experiments and found that basic tactile sensations influence higher social cognitive processing in both dimension-specific and metaphor-specific ways.

For instance, the researchers found that shoppers more readily understood and formed confident impressions about products with which they physically interacted. In other experiments, passersby evaluated a job candidate by reviewing resumes either on light or heavier clipboards. Participants using heavy clipboards rated the candidate as better overall. However, the candidate was not rated as more likely to “get along” with coworkers, suggesting that the weight cue affected impressions of the candidate’s performance and seriousness. Further, participants using the heavy clipboard rated their own accuracy on the task as more important than those using the lighter clip board. Likewise, participants who sat in hard chairs while summing up a potential employee believed him to be both more stable than those sitting in a softer chair.

Why might our sense of touch direct our impressions about untouched or even untouchable things? One possibility, says Ackerman, is that sensory experiences in early life influence the development of our conceptual knowledge. This conceptual knowledge, in turn, can subsequently be applied to new experiences. Thus, touching objects may simultaneously cue the processing of physical sensation and touch-related conceptual processing.

This is further strengthened by the use of common metaphors such as “having a rough day,” “coarse language,” “thinking about weighty matters,” and the “gravity of the situation,” implying that heaviness produces impressions of importance and seriousness, while roughness leads to impressions of decreased coordination.

While touch is both the first sense to develop and a critical means of information acquisition and environmental manipulation, Ackerman believes it remains perhaps the most underappreciated sense in behavioral research.

“I find it amazing that subtle actions like touching sandpaper or sitting in a hard chair can have such an influence over very important decisions, such as which candidate we're willing to hire, how generous we are, and how much we're willing to pay for big ticket purchases,” says Ackerman.” Our hands, we’ve learned, manipulate our minds as well as our environments. Perhaps the use of such ‘tactile tactics’ will represent the next advance in social influence and communication.”

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