Public Release: 

Touch: How a hard chair creates a hard heart

Yale University

Through textures, shapes, weights and temperatures, the sense of touch influences both our thoughts and behavior.

In a series of six experiments documented in the June 25 issue of the journal Science, a Yale-led team of psychologists demonstrated 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 upon Bargh's 2008 study 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 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.


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