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Helping Hands: How Our Tactile Sense Affects Our Outlook

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Everything King Midas touched turned to gold, but it didn’t make him happy. Maybe that’s because gold is cold and hard, not such a pleasant tactile sensation. Our sense of touch has gotten short shrift over the years; we usually pay more attention to how things look, sound, taste, and even smell before we care how they feel. But new research reveals that what we touch affects our life outlook, though our tactile sense doesn’t always tell us the truth.

Living by the Seat of Our Pants
Our sense of touch profoundly affects our worldview, according to John A. Bargh, of Yale, and his colleagues from Yale, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their study, published in the June 25, 2010, issue of Science, builds on a previous study by Bargh that found people judge others differently depending on whether the cup of liquid they are holding is cold or warm. Bargh’s new research, which involved about three hundred participants and varied experiments, tells us more about the link between our tactile sense and decision making.

One of the experiments, for example, showed that participants who sat on hard chairs were less likely to compromise in price negotiations than the ones who sat on softer, cushioned chairs. “It’s behavioral priming through the seat of the pants,” says Bargh in a press release, adding that physical sensations “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.”

Through their experiments, Bargh and his colleagues also learned:

  • Participants who arranged a rough jigsaw puzzle, rather than a smooth one, and then read a passage about an interaction between two people were more likely to describe the interaction as adversarial.
  • Job interviewers who hold heavy clipboards are more likely to believe that applicants are serious about their work.
  • Bosses asked to hold a soft blanket or a hard wooden block before being told a story about the interaction between an employee and supervisor in their workplace were more likely to judge the employee harshly if they held the block, not the blanket.

“The old concepts of mind-body dualism are turning out not to be true at all,” says Bargh of the study’s conclusions. “Our minds are deeply and organically linked to our bodies.” He also suggests that common phrases such as “having a rough day,” “weighty opinion,” or “taking a hard line” probably stem from the phenomenon that he and his colleagues examined in their research.

Tactile Tactics
What to do with this information? Christopher C. Nocera, a graduate student at Harvard who coauthored the study with Bargh and Joshua M. Ackerman of MIT, formerly of Yale, says in another press release that our sense of touch “remains perhaps the most underappreciated sense in behavioral research,” and that “greetings involving touch, such as handshakes and cheek kisses, may in fact have critical influences on our social interactions in an unconscious fashion.”

In their paper, Bargh, Nocera, and Ackerman write that these unconscious influences “may be especially important for negotiators, pollsters, job seekers, and others interested in personal communication. The use of ‘tactile tactics’ may represent a new frontier in social influence and communication.”

In other words, if you want someone else to view you favorably, learn how to keep her comfortable, or at least hand her a soft blankie.

Sleight of Hand
But Bargh, Nocera, and Ackerman’s conclusions are a little more complicated when they’re interpreted in conjunction with what scientists already know about our sense of touch. Tactile illusions, the subject of Graham Lawton’s March 2009 article in New Scientist, occur when your brain and your nerve endings send each other the wrong information.

A classic example of a tactile illusion is the “cutaneous rabbit.” If you or someone else taps first your wrist and then your elbow in rapid succession, you will also feel an additional phantom tap between them, a sensation that has often been described as having a rabbit hopping on your arm.

Lawton gives seven other examples of tactile illusions. “It’s surprisingly easy for your body to fool your brain,” he writes.

Touch Can Be Deceiving
Our senses help us to experience and interpret the world around us. But they’re not as trustworthy as we often believe them to be. It’s important to know how much our sense of touch affects our worldview, precisely because it often gives us erroneous information. We can use that to our persuasive advantage, as Bargh and his colleagues suggest, but if we’re the ones being persuaded, it might be a good idea to consider the kind of chair we’re sitting on before signing anything.


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