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American Association for the Advancement of Science

The human sense of touch: More than just a feeling

A sandpaper-covered puzzle designed to nonconsciously prime metaphorical concepts of roughness. Participants completing this puzzle interpreted social interactions as more interpersonally difficult, and they compensated by being more generous, than participants completing a smooth version of the puzzle.
Image © Science/AAAS

Have you ever thought about where the expression "having a rough day" came from? Well, a group of researchers has just performed a study that links our physical feelings—like touching a rough object—to our unconscious thoughts and behaviors. According to the study's results, the feeling of a rough object can actually inspire feelings of difficulty in our minds as well.

In light of these findings, the expression "having a rough day" can actually make a lot of sense.

In a series of experiments, Joshua Ackerman and colleagues found that they could affect peoples' subconscious feelings by providing them with different objects to hold. The researchers asked volunteers to hold different items, such as heavy or light clipboards, rough- or smooth-feeling puzzle pieces, and various hard and soft objects, while they quizzed the volunteers on their opinions of unrelated people and subjects.

A hard wood block and a soft blanket designed to nonconsciously prime metaphorical concepts of hardness and softness, respectively. Participants who touched hard objects viewed others as more strict and stable, and they were themselves more rigid in negotiations, than participants who touched soft objects.
Image © Science/AAAS

By simply changing the weight, hardness, or roughness of those objects, the researchers found that they could influence the volunteers' judgments and behaviors. For example, people who held heavier clipboards seemed to find more importance, or "weight," in their interactions with others. Volunteers who were holding rough objects also seemed to believe that their interactions were more difficult than people who were holding smooth objects. Finally, the feel of hard objects increased the volunteers' rigidity, or "hardness" in a game.

Since our sense of touch is the first sense to develop in humans, and also an important way to gather information and manipulate our environments, Ackerman and his colleagues suggest that early physical probing, or touching, of the outside world can carry over into our adult lives and have profound effects on our behaviors and impressions of other people.