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Researchers say sense of touch guides impressions, decisions

By Elizabeth Cooney
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2010

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Think someone is a tough customer? Maybe it is all in your head — or your fingertips.

Our sense of touch primes our impressions and influences our decisions, even when our tactile sensations have nothing to do with the matter at hand, researchers from MIT, Harvard, and Yale conclude in a paper published today in Science. They tested what our bodies unconsciously tell our minds in a series of experiments using objects of different weight, texture, and hardness.

Joshua Ackerman of the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led a team that asked people passing on the street near MIT or Yale to make judgments about job candidates, to interpret interactions between two people, or to imagine shopping for a new car.

When people were handed a clipboard with a resume attached, they were more likely to say the applicant was seriously interested in the position if they were holding a heavy clipboard rather than a light one.

Similarly, if people were asked whether an ambiguous back-and-forth between two people was adversarial or friendly, they were more likely to see it in a negative light if they had just been working on a jigsaw puzzle with sandpaper-rough pieces compared to people handling smooth pieces.

And people sitting in hard chairs were more rigid in negotiating the sales price of a car than people relaxing in more comfortable chairs.

“Physical experiences really become factors in how people understand the world,’’ Ackerman said. “It involves the body as well as the mind.’’

Language shows the connections we make between physical and mental experiences through metaphors, Ackerman said. When we say a situation is heavy or has gravity, we don’t mean we’re walking around hunched over. We mean it feels serious and important.

Holding a heavy clipboard was apparently enough to connect the concept behind the metaphor to the hypothetical job applicant. The “serious’’ candidates did not score well on their ability to get along with other people, so the rating was limited to the “weight’’ of their interest.

Ackerman’s coauthor, John Bargh of Yale, had made this connection in other research that showed holding a hot or cold cup carried over into how warmly people felt about others. The question is, why?

Ackerman believes people may default to touch because it is the first sense to develop, providing the scaffolding for conceptual knowledge that comes along later. Touching sandpaper cues a thought process that starts with the sensation of roughness, but continues with the idea that something is not going smoothly.

“People understand the world in the easiest way they can, and the easiest way they can is by using information they previously acquired,’’ Ackerman said. “Information they previously acquired is through physical experience.’’

Ackerman said such companies as Apple Inc. know this already. Its products are designed smooth with rounded edges.

“Smooth products make makes them seem easier to use and may make them seem to perform better,’’ he said.

Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at ecooney@globe.com.

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