A negative affective state makes mammals crave touch.

If you've ever wondered why children reach for a teddy bear or security blanket when they're upset, new research may give a clue. A study just published in The Journal of Consumer Research suggests that people are more attentive to tactile stimuli when they're in a negative frame of mind, making them more likely to crave soft or pleasant textures than to pay attention to visual stimuli, such as color and pattern.

Through a series of five experiments, the study's authors discovered that people in a negative affective state derived more pleasure from tactile attributes of a product, such as the smoothness of a hand lotion, than they did from a product's visual attributes. For those in a positive state, the results were reversed. To generalize, it seems happy people like to look, while sad ones crave touch.

The reasons for this, the study's authors speculate, relate to the mammalian roots of our emotions. Authors Dan King and Chris Janiszewski write: "Human affective systems evolved from mammalian affective systems, and when mammals are young and incapable of thinking, their brain systems have to make these pups able to perform the 'correct' behavior," facilitating either closeness to the mother or expansion and exploration. The pleasure channels shift to promote the more adaptive behavior, so in conditions of injury or anxiety, an increased sensitivity to tactility rewards the seeking of "affiliative" textures (those associated with another, protective organism), while in conditions of health and security, visual sensitivity encourages broad exploration. As the authors note, "Without the alternating increase and decrease of hedonic experience from tactile stimulation, the opposing objectives of social support and nutritive exploration could not be optimized to advance organismic survival. The organism needs to feel pleasure from affiliative contact some of the time, and not feel pleasure from affiliative contact at other times, in order to achieve both the social attachment and exploration that promote well-rounded development and survival."

This finding puts a new spin on the broaden and build theory of positive emotion, put forth by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and detailed in her book, Positivity. The broaden and build theory suggests that positive emotions evolved to promote activities like exploration, learning, relationship-building, and investment in the future, activities that are often eschewed under times of stress for an organism. While negative emotions narrow our focus and enable us to deal effectively with immediate threats or challenges, positive emotions broaden our mindset, which allows us to build competencies and connections that will enhance our future survival and success.

It has previously been shown that people in positive affective states take in more visual information than those in negative affective states. The insight afforded by this study adds a new layer, suggesting that perhaps the reason we seem to see more when in a good mood is that our brains are unconsciously increasing our sensitivity to visual pleasure. In my work on Aesthetics of Joy, I've noticed that many of the stimuli that bring joy are visual, so perhaps there is a positive feedback loop here - when we feel good, we seek out visual stimuli, which in turn enhance our mood further, and so on.

King and Janiszewski point to some commercial implications for their work. They write: "This research suggests that marketers may be able to segment their markets based on the affective propensities of the consumer, and prioritize tactile and visual quality for these different segments. A dollar invested in the 'correct' attribute will generate more pleasure, and hence, will be more likely to be rewarded in terms of higher sales."

Perhaps consumer targeting is an application for this research, but for me, a more exciting use would be to see this work applied to the design of products and experiences that enhance wellbeing. In hospitals and nursing homes, for example, tactility is vastly underused. I'm sure that the slick surfaces and rough linens in use in most of these facilities is more a function of the need to manage germs, but new fibers and materials should make it possible to have more comforting surfaces while still maintaining a sterile space. In schools, especially primary schools, we could imagine zones defined by stimulus: an exploring space that provides ample pattern, color, and form, and a resting space that is primarily defined by texture. Or maybe a mood-based store, with clusters of items grouped to naturally attract people in different moods and speak to their emotions. If a space proves too costly to design in a particular instance, are there objects we could create that would "speak" to the sensory channel relevant to our mood? Could there be comfort objects for adults that don't feel juvenile, but that provide aesthetic solace to those in distress?

Our natural mental models conceive that our senses are one-way input devices, pulling in data like a trawl net to process and filter after the fact. In reality, the dialogue between sense and perception is a much more complex dance, with the information we take in about the world shaped by constantly fluctuating thresholds that vary with our energy level, health, and emotional state. It's another example of how our unconscious mind sits at the center of a smart system, equipped with ingenious mechanisms for helping us get what we need to be and feel well.

If you'd like to read more about the study, see here.


University of Chicago Press Journals. "Animal instincts: Why do unhappy consumers prefer tactile sensations?." ScienceDaily, 16 Jun. 2011. Web. 20 Jun. 2011.

Dan King and Chris Janiszewski. Affect-Gating. Journal of Consumer Research, June 7, 2011 DOI: 10.1086/660811

About the Author

Ingrid Fetell

Ingrid Fetell is a designer and writer whose work explores the emotional relationships between people and things.

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