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Surface Impact

The physical sensations of objects we touch influence our more abstract feelings.

It's not just the physical contact we make with other people that produces unexpected reverberations in our psyches. "How our physical body interacts with the world is fundamentally connected to our thinking," says Josh Ackerman, an evolutionary psychologist at MIT's Sloan School of Management. The idea that our physical selves shape our psychological selves, known as embodied cognition, has been a popular subject of research in recent years.

For example, a 2010 study by Ackerman and colleagues revealed that the physical qualities of objects people touched—their hardness or softness, heaviness or lightness, roughness or smoothness—tilted people's judgments toward those same abstract qualities. So folks holding a heavy clipboard were more likely to judge someone as serious; touching a rough texture was linked to judgments of harshness. Sitting in a hard wooden chair seemed to make people more rigid in a negotiation. A 2008 study by one of Ackerman's coauthors, Yale University psychologist John Bargh, found that holding a hot drink makes people rate strangers as warmer—more caring and generous—while another of his studies, published in 2011 in Emotion, revealed that the feeling of loneliness can be mitigated by an experience of physical warmth (holding a warm pack).

Such translation of touch sensations into abstract qualities offers a glimpse into how the physical sensations we experience early in life become a kind of mental scaffold that supports more metaphorical thinking as we grow older. We build abstract concepts on top of the physical ones (for example, our concept of a "rough" or "coarse" personality is based on our understanding of tactile roughness). That connection between physical sensation and abstract concept remains, so experiencing the former triggers the latter.

Does that mean that you should avoid sitting in a soft chair at the car dealership? Or use heavier stock for your business cards, or take a hot shower when you're home alone on a Saturday night and feeling low? Yes and no, says Ackerman. Like a magic trick, the phenomenon works only if you're not aware of what's really happening. "If you pay attention to the fact that you're touching something hard or heavy, your mind will overrule it," he explains. So taking note of the comfy chair as you settle down to negotiate your car loan should undo the tendency to become a softer negotiator. And your firm handshake might convince an interviewer that you're a strong, substantial candidate...unless it occurs to him that you're trying to make a good impression with that strong grip.