Thinking about weighty matters: Weight while thinking matters.

Another strange example of the link between body and mind.

Posted Oct 13, 2009

Starting in the 1990s, mainstream research in Psychology began to take seriously the relationship between mind and body. This research has sometimes led to some strange discoveries. Here's one.

Our language is full of metaphors that relate abstract concepts to specific bodily states. One common metaphor relates weight and heaviness to importance. For example, when you do a little light reading, the book is not that important. When we talk about people who think deep thoughts, we consider them to have intellectual heft.

These metaphors might signal something important about the relationship between mind and body, but the might just be a convenient way that language uses to express the abstract concept of the importance of thoughts. After all, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how language uses the metaphor that anger is a heated fluid in a container ("John was boiling mad."), but that metaphor does not seem to be a good description of how anger really works.

A paper by Nils Jostmann, Daniel Lakens, and Thomas Schubert in the September, 2009 issue of Psychological Science put this idea to the test in a series of clever studies. I'll describe two of them here.

In the first, they had European participants rate the value of small amounts of money from a number of foreign currencies (like the Japanese yen). People made their ratings by marking a scale with a pencil. The rating scales were on a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard. The clipboard was either relatively light or relatively heavy. The people who were carrying the heavy clipboard rated the money as more valuable than the people who were carrying the light clipboard.

If weight were really making things seem more important, then that ought to have an influence on the way people think about issues. In a second study, the experimenters had people evaluate two somewhat related statements. First, they read a brief description of the mayor of their town (Amsterdam) and rated the mayor on a number of attributes like trustworthiness and likeability. Then, they rated how much they liked living in the city. As before, they performed this study either while carrying a light clipboard or a heavy one.

For the people carrying the heavy clipboard, the ratings about the mayor and the ratings about liking to live in the city were highly correlated. That is, people who liked the mayor said they liked living in the city. Those who did not like the mayor said they did not like living in the city. On the other hand, for those people carrying the light clipboard, the ratings about the mayor were not at all related to the ratings about living in the city. This result suggests that carrying the heavy clipboard made people think more about their ratings and led them to put a premium on being consistent from one rating to the next.

These findings suggest that experiencing weight and heaviness is enough to trigger the concept of importance. This idea of importance then affects people's judgments of value and leads people to seek consistency in their thoughts.