Sense of Touch Affects Our World View

Study Shows Link Between Sense of Touch and the Decisions People Make

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on June 24, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

June 24, 2010 -- Our sense of touch profoundly affects how we view the world and other people, influencing thoughts and behavior, new research indicates.

Investigators at Yale, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology report that textures, shapes, and weights can influence judgments and decisions.

The researchers, for example, say that:

  • People sitting on hard, cushion-less chairs are less likely to compromise in price negotiations than people sitting on softer chairs.
  • Interviewers holding a heavy clipboard are likely to think job applicants take their work more seriously than if the clipboard is less weighty.

The researchers conducted a series of six experiments to demonstrate how dramatically the sense of touch affects how people view others and the world.

"It is behavioral priming through the seat of the pants," says study researcher John A. Bargh, PhD, of Yale, in a news release. "The old concepts of mind-body dualism are turning out not to be true at all. Our minds are deeply and organically linked to our bodies."

Bargh worked on the study along with former Yale researchers Joshua M. Ackerman, PhD, now of MIT, and Christopher C. Nocera, a graduate student at Harvard.

In addition to concluding that a hard chair creates a hard heart, the researchers also had participants arrange a rough or smooth jigsaw puzzle and then read a passage about an interaction between two people. Participants were more likely to characterize the interaction as adversarial if they had first handled rough, jigsaw puzzle pieces, as opposed to smooth ones.

The study, reported in the June 25 issue of Science, builds on previous work by Bargh that found people judge others to be more generous and caring after they had briefly held a cup of warm coffee rather than a cold drink.

Physical Experiences Influence Behavior

Bargh says in the news release that physical concepts such as warmth, hardness, and roughness are among the first feelings infants develop and remember.

Such feelings, he says, are critical to how young children and adults eventually develop abstract concepts about people and relationships.

These sensations, he says, help create a mental scaffold on which our understandings about the world develop as we age.

And they are reflected in such common expressions as "having a rough day" or "taking a hard line" or "weighing in with an opinion."

He says physical experiences "not only shape the foundation of our thoughts and perceptions, but influence our behavior toward others, sometimes just because we are sitting in a hard instead of a soft chair."

Nocera says in a second news release that touch "remains perhaps the most underappreciated sense in behavioral research" and that their experiments suggest that "greetings involving touch, such as handshakes and cheek kisses, may in fact have critical influences on our social interactions in an unconscious fashion."

The researchers write that first impressions drawn from the tactile environment "may be especially important for negotiators, pollsters, job seekers and others interested in interpersonal communication. The use of 'tactile tactics' may represent a new frontier in social influence and communication."

In the series of experiments, researchers studied how objects' weight, texture and hardness could unconsciously influence judgments about unrelated events.

In another test of hardness, people were asked to handle either a soft blanket or a hard wooden block before being told an ambiguous story about a workplace interaction between an employee and a supervisor. Those bosses who touched the block judged the employee as more rigid and strict.

The experiments, involving about 300 people, involved mock price negotiations, puzzle playing with smooth or rough pieces, getting participants to sit in hard or soft chairs, and asking some to try to guess the secret of a magic act.

Show Sources


News release, Yale University.

News release, Harvard University.

Ackerman, J. Science, June 25, 2010; vol 328: pp 1712-1715.

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