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Touch and go – what you touch may influence how you feel

June 25, 2010 |  5:08 pm

Rock Having a rough day? Got a soft spot for ice cream? It might be more than a feeling. In fact, tactile contact –  touching something light or heavy, smooth or rough, soft or hard – can have a profound effect on your perceptions and judgments, even when the object has nothing to do with the task at hand.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, a team of researchers from Harvard University, Yale University and MIT tested people’s subconscious responses to feeling objects of different weights and textures.

- In one case, participants had to evaluate a resume, some reading it on a light clipboard and others on a heavy one; the heavy clipboard readers thought the applicant was more serious about the job.

- In another study, people were asked to complete a puzzle, either with smooth or sandpaper-covered pieces, and then judge the harshness of a social interaction; those who did the “rough” puzzle thought the interaction was harsher. 

- The researchers also found that people sitting in wooden chairs, as compared to cushioned chairs, drove a harder bargain in a mock car sale. They believe that the participants associated the hard chair with strictness and stability, and thus were less likely to budge on their offer price.

In other words, even though the heavy, rough or hard objects weren’t directly related to the assigned task, they clearly affected people’s behavior.

Here's the abstract to the touch study.

Given the prevalence of tactile metaphors in our everyday language, the associations found in the study – heavy equals serious, rough equals difficult, hard equals strict – make sense. Still, it’s impressive that the subconscious cues just from touching something can have such a discernable effect on our impressions and behavior.

So, which came first, the emotions or the language?

It’s tempting to say that our idioms reflect innate qualities of objects – a hard, rough, heavy rock, for example – but trying to spell out the connection suggests that it's not quite so simple.

After all, what's so serious or difficult or strict about a rock?

— Rachel Bernstein

Photo: Sometimes, a touch can be worth a thousand words. Photo credit: Los Angeles Times.