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The science of psych

What You Touch Changes How You Think

The dangers of soft chairs.

Next time you visit a car dealership, avoid sitting in soft chairs and you'll negotiate a better deal. Science says so.

In recent years, psychologists studying "embodied cognition" have demonstrated that many of our abstract concepts are grounded in our physical experiences in the world. For example Lawrence Williams and John Bargh showed the idea of interpersonal warmth is so closely tied to actual heat that if you hand people hot cups of coffee they'll rate strangers as more caring than if you hand them iced coffee. (The association may emerge from childhood experiences of warm—in both senses—hugs.)

Now a new paper, published in tomorrow's issue of Science, shows how three more types of sensory feedback can shape our attitudes and impressions: weight, texture, and hardness.

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Josh Ackerman, Christopher Nocera, and John Bargh conducted six experiments. The first two explored weight, which we associate with seriousness and importance. Think about phrases such as "the gravity of the situation." Participants holding a heavy clipboard rated job applicants as more qualified and more serious about a position than participants holding light clipboards did. Heavy clipboards also made participants (men, at least) rate public issues such as air-pollution standards as more deserving of funding.

The second two studies involved texture. We associate coarseness with difficulty ("a rough day" versus "smooth sailing"). Participants put together puzzle pieces that were either smooth or covered with sandpaper, then read an account of an ambiguous social interaction. The rough-puzzle-feelers rated it as more adversarial. Other subjects did the puzzle routine, then took a survey of their own social interaction style. The smooth-puzzle-feelers rated themselves as more prosocial and cooperative than the other group did. Rough-puzzle-feelers also made a larger offer to a partner in an ultimatum game—not to be nice but to make sure it was accepted.

The last two studies looked at hardness, which we associate with stability and strictness, as in being "hardheaded" versus "a softie." Subjects felt a piece of blanket or a block of wood, then rated a social interaction between a boss and an employee. The block-people thought the employee was more rigid than the blanket-people did. In the final study, subjects sat on a hard chair or a soft chair, then performed the interaction-rating task. Those in a hard chair rated the employee as more unemotional than those in the soft chair did. Participants in this study also did a negotiation task. They wrote down two bids for a car. The second one was to be offered if the first was rejected. People in a hard chair were more inflexible in their negotiating; the difference between their first and second bid was smaller.

I'm trying to think of how to put these finding to practical use. How about this: If you find that your family or roommates are being abrasive—you know, real asses—try replacing the Scott tissue with Angel Soft.

Got anything better?

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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