What You Touch Can Influence What You Think

In a series of studies, a team of researchers has shown that our sense of touch may strongly influence our thoughts and interactions with other people—even when what we’re touching and what we’re doing seem unrelated. What’s more, we appear to be unaware that the things we touch—their weight, hardness, and texture—influence the decisions we make.
To test how touch might influence our impressions, the researchers asked volunteers to judge a job candidate by looking at a resume that was on either a light clipboard or a heavy clipboard. Those using a heaving clipboard thought the candidate was more qualified and more serious about the job—had “heavier” interest in it, we might say—than did those who used the light clipboard. People were also more likely to view an interaction between two people as more difficult and harsh if they first handled rough puzzle pieces rather than smooth ones. And the researchers found that people sitting in hard chairs were less flexible and willing to negotiate than those sitting in soft chairs, making much lower second offers on a car after the first had been rejected.
Why would our tactile sensations have these kinds of effects? As infants, we learn about the physical world by touching things—it’s the first of our senses to develop—and as we get older, it becomes “a scaffold for the development of conceptual knowledge,” the researchers say. In other words, we use our sense of touch to form judgments about more abstract things; we touch smooth puzzle pieces and then think a situation is running “smoothly.”
When people do this, Joshua Ackerman, a professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management, explains in a write-up of the research:

They are taking the easiest route to obtaining information, by drawing on the ideas they already have developed.

Category: Findings

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  1. […] Our research shows that the qualities of the things we touch—the weight, texture, and hardness of objects—profoundly influence the impressions we form and decisions we make, even about unrelated people and situations. All of that is lost in a world without touch. To some degree, that’s a good thing because these environmental influences can contaminate our thoughts. But of course to another degree, that’s a bad thing because people feel more connected to the things they touch, they are more confident about the impressions they form, and they simply have more information from the act of touching. So I think we will begin to see more touchable devices as the electronic/virtual world evolves, and there really may be something missing from our online experiences until that happens. […]

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