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Making sense of our senses

Tel Aviv University researcher's new book reveals how sensory interaction with the world influences decision and behavior

American Friends of Tel Aviv University


IMAGE: This is Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence by Thalma Lobel, new this month from Simon and Schuster. view more

Credit: American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Have you just fallen in love? Found the perfect job? Bought a shiny new car? You might attribute these judgements and decisions to a host of considered reasons and instincts, but you might also take a closer look at the beverage you drank, the chair you sat on, and shirt you wore today.

According to a new book by Prof. Thalma Lobel, director of The Adler Center for Research in Child Development and Psychopathology at Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences, our senses influence our decisions and behavior more than we can possibly imagine. Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence, published this month by Simon and Schuster, explores over 100 experiments in the modern science of embodied cognition conducted at universities around the world and concludes that sensual physical experiences unconsciously affect our everyday choices, and have profound implications for our lives.

"About five years ago, a research student of mine brought me a study conducted at Yale University," said Prof. Lobel. "The findings - that what we experience through our senses dramatically influences our decisions and behavior, without us being aware of it - were so unbelievable and surprising that I knew right then and there that this was an area I wanted to focus on in my own research."

Washing away a guilty conscience?

Prof. Lobel began conducting her own experiments in embodied cognition at TAU. In one study, Prof. Lobel examined the effect of cleanliness on cheating.

Her students approached men and women at the university gym locker room and asked them to fill out a general information questionnaire featuring some challenging, and at times unanswerable, questions. Two groups of participants - pre- and post-shower - were asked to fill out the survey. Afterwards, they were given an answer key and asked to correct their own papers, then write their final scores on a separate page -- thus affording them ample opportunity to cheat.

The results of the experiment were clear: Those who showered cheated more than those still sweaty from their workout, who more often scored themselves appropriately.

"Our study confirmed that those who felt clean on the outside felt 'clean' enough on the inside to be able to falsify their test scores and report that they had correctly answered some of our impossible questions," said Prof. Lobel. "It was as if they felt a 'morality surplus' from the shower, as if they had moral character to spare and could therefore cheat."

Inner workings of the mind

While conducting her own research on the subject of physical intelligence, Prof. Lobel began examining and comparing similar studies from universities around the world. The findings - that holding a warm cup of coffee makes one friendlier, using a red typeface on tests leads to poor performance, seeing a light bulb sparks creativity, experiencing unpleasant tastes lead to harsh moral judgements, wearing sunglasses makes one likely to cheat - led to one inescapable conclusion: People are shockingly vulnerable to the influence of their senses. Temperature, texture, weight, sound, taste, smell, and color, among other physical sensations, affect people every moment of every day.

"The findings are so astonishing, remarkable in fact, that they lift the curtain on the inner workings of the mind," said Prof. Lobel. "Your sensory experience of the world influences the rational mind you believe you have, as well as the independent thoughts you believe you create."

It quickly became clear that these findings demonstrating the influence of our physical experiences on our behavior and decisions had the makings of a book. "I decided that every person should be able to read about this, not just psychology students and researchers," said Prof. Lobel. "I wanted to write a book that would not only be extremely interesting to anyone who wants to know what influences our behavior, but would also offer tools for all aspects of life - whether in business negotiations, interactions with our children and spouses, athletic performance, or dating. These tools can actually help people navigate their personal and professional lives."

Together with doctoral student Allon Cohen, Prof. Lobel is currently researching visual cues of physical stability and the association between physical and psychological stability. In another study, she is investigating the association between the color pink and optimism, reflected in such metaphors as "rose-tinted glass."


American Friends of Tel Aviv University supports Israel's leading, most comprehensive and most sought-after center of higher learning, Tel Aviv University (TAU). Rooted in a pan-disciplinary approach to education, TAU is internationally recognized for the scope and groundbreaking nature of its research and scholarship -- attracting world-class faculty and consistently producing cutting-edge work with profound implications for the future. TAU is independently ranked 116th among the world's top universities and #1 in Israel. It joins a handful of elite international universities that rank among the best producers of successful startups.

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