Touch influences social judgements and decisions

APPLYING for a job? The weight of the clipboard to which your CV is attached may influence your chances of getting it. Negotiating a deal? Sitting in a hard chair may lead you to drive a harder bargain. Those are two of the surprising conclusions of a study published in today's issue of Science, which shows that the physical properties of objects we touch can unconsciously influence our first impressions of other people and the decisions we make about them.

Josh Ackerman of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, and psychologists Chris Nocera and John Bargh of Harvard and Yale Universities, respectively, performed a series of six experiments designed to investigate whether or not the weight, texture and hardness of objects can influence our judgements of, and decisions about, unrelated events and situations. Their findings provide yet more evidence for the embodied cognition hypothesis, which states that bodily perceptions can exert a strong influence on the way we think.

In the first experiment, 54 passersby were asked to evaluate a job candidate on the basis of a CV attached to either a light (0.34 kg) or a heavy (2 kg) clipboard. Those given the CV on the heavier clipboard generally rated the candidate as being better and having a more serious interest in the position than those given the lighter clipboard, even though the CVs used in both cases were identical. Those given the heavy clipboard also rated their accuracy on the task as more important than those given the lighter one, but did not report putting more effort into it. They did not, however, rate the candidate as more likely to get along with co-workers. This suggests that the weight cue affected their impressions of the candidate's performance and seriousness, but not the irrelevant trait of social likeability, and that the observed effects were not due their perception of their own actions. 

The effect of an object's weight on decision-making was explored in a second, smiilarly designed experiment. Again, 43 passersby were asked to complete a "social action survey", asking whether various public issues should receive more or less government funding. And again, the weight of the clipboard was found to affect the participants' responses, although an interesting sex difference was observed: men allocated more money when given the survey on the heavier clipboard than when handed the lighter one, whereas women chose to allocate as much funding as possible in both the "heavy" and "light" conditions. 

Next, the researchers looked at the effects of an object's texture on participants' perceptions of a social interaction. Participants read a passage describing an ambiguous interaction between two people, and were then asked about their impressions of the situation - whether it was confrontational or friendly, competitve or co-operative, a discussion or an argument. Beforehand, they were asked to complete a five-piece jigsaw puzzle; in one version of the puzzle, the pieces were covered in rough sandpaper, and in the other, they were smooth. Those who completed the rough puzzle perceived the situation as being confrontational and more competitive than those who completed the smooth puzzle.

Texture was also found to affect the decisions made in a social situation. Participants completed either the rough or the smooth puzzle before playing a version of the Ultimatum game. They were given 10 tickets for a $50 lottery, and made to give any number of them to a second anonymous participant. If the second participant rejected the offer, all the tickets are forfeited. Those who had first completed the rough puzzle offered more tickets to the second participant than those who did the smmoth puzzle. The roughness of the puzzle pieces apparently made them perceive the situation as being more difficult and consequently caused them to behave in a compensatory way - they offered more tickets to increase the chances that their offer would be accepted.

The researchers then investigated the effects of an object's hardness. Another group of participants was asked to watch a magic trick, and to try to figure out how it was done. Beforehand, they were asked to examine the object to be used in the trick - either a soft pice of blanket or a hard wooden block. They were then told that the trick was to be postponed, and asked to give their impressions of two individuals (an "employee" and the "boss") involved in an hypothetical interaction. Those previously given the blanket evaluated the employee as being kinder than those given the wooden block.

Finally, texture was also found to affect peoples' behaviour in a bargaining situation. But whereas the other five experiments examined the effects of actively touching an object, this one investigated passive touch. The participants were seated in either a hard wooden chair or a soft cushioned chair, and asked to perform two tasks. In one, they gave their impression of an hypothetical employee. In the second they were required to imagine shopping for a new car priced $16,500 and to negotiate a lower price. In this bargaining task, they were allowed to make two offers on the car, the assumption being that their first offer would be rejected. The participants who sat in the hard chair judged the employee to be more stable and less emotional than those seated in the soft chair. They also deviated less from their first rejected offer. 

These experiments show that touch sensations have a strong influence on our impressions of people and the decisions we make about them, even when the people and events are completely unrelated to the objects being touched. Thus, hardness is associated with rigidity, roughness with difficulty, and heavy objects with seriousness. Our metaphors reflect these associations: we sometimes describe people as having a "hard hearted", "rough day", and serious matters are often said to be "weighty". The weight, texture and hardness of touched objects evidently has a strong priming effect on the thought processes that immediately follow, and can trigger the associated concepts. These findings suggest various "tactile tactics" that could be very useful to job seekers, marketers and negotiators.


Ackerman, J., et al. (2010). Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions. Science 328: 1712-1715. DOI: 10.1126/science.1189993.

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It really goes to show how our decision-making process can be irrational and drives our behavior on a subconscious level. Thank you for sharing!

I'd love to read the study; can you provide the reference?

Strangely enough I always chose to print out final 'formal' reports on heavier weight paper than the earlier drafts. Similarly I print out photos I really like on heavier paper than ordinary photo prints.

Heavy = quality = good?

By DiscoveredJoys (not verified) on 25 Jun 2010 #permalink

ha... maybe not lead, but I certainly wouldn't opt for 20lb paper with a rough texture. Who would want to be perceived as lightweight and difficult?

Very interesting ... so "touchy feelly" does work as long as you choose the appropriate touch. More seriously, it's more evidence of the power of symbols (words, sensations, shapes, images) to direct our thinking and alter our behaviour. Thanks for sharing.

I'm little late in seeing this, but I also took note of these studies and considered that they were bringing our attention to the extent to which the body is leading what we call thought. We think of metaphor as something we create to communicate a thought better. But it may be that metaphor is more at the source of thinking and when we employ it more consciously, we are borrowing from what our bodies already do outside of our awareness.

I've written about this a bit on