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Hot Drinks, Soft Fabric, and Heavy Objects

What you are holding or touching can affect your decision-making.

Do you think you'd make different decisions if you were holding something heavy in your hand than holding nothing? Or if you were holding a cup of hot coffee instead of a cold drink? Sounds unlikely, but it's true.

Joshua Ackerman and John Bargh (2010) conducted research where they had candidates for job interviews hand in their resume one of three ways. One candidate handed in her resume on regular printer paper. Another candidate handed in her resume on regular printer paper, but had it clipped to a light clipboard. A third candidate handed in her resume on regular printer paper, but had it clipped to a heavy clipboard. Then they had interviewers rate which candidates were the best for the job. The interviewers gave higher ratings to candidates whose resume they were reading while the interviewer was holding a heavy clipboard.

Holding a heavy object while looking at a resume makes a job candidate appear more important. In fact, any idea you're considering while holding something heavy (for instance, a book) you will deem to be more important. The metaphor of an idea being "weighty" has a physical corollary.

There are two terms that are used for this. Sometimes it's called "haptic sensation" and sometimes you will find it referred to as "embodied cognition."  We are very influenced by the meaning that our sense of touch perceives. 

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You may be surprised to find out all the ways that these haptic sensations affect our perceptions and judgments. Besides the effect for a heavy object, people also react to these other haptic sensations:

  • When people touch a rough object during a social interaction, for instance, if they're sitting on a chair with coarse wool upholstery, they rate the interaction more difficult than if they touch a soft object.
  • When people touch a hard object, they rate a negotiation as more rigid than if they touch a soft object.
  • When people hold a warm cup (for example, a warm cup of coffee), they judge the person they're interacting with to have a warmer personality than if they're holding a cup of cold liquid.

You can use these haptic sensations to get people to do stuff. If you want people to have easier interactions with others, then you might want to have soft furniture, not hard chairs, in your conference room, and use a soft fabric covering for them rather than a scratchy tweed. If you have an important client coming to your office, and you want her to feel warmly about you, get her a cup of hot coffee or tea in a mug that will transmit the heat before you start.

For more information on this and similar topics, check out my book How To Get People To Do Stuff. And here's the research I cite above:

Ackerman, Joshua M., Christopher Nocera, and John Bargh. 2010. “Incidental haptic sensations influence social judgments and decisions.” Science. 328 (5986): 1712-1715. DOI:10.1126/science.1189993

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.,is a behavioral psychologist, author, coach, and consultant in neuropsychology.

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