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The magic touch

An MIT researcher examines how the objects we handle affect the decisions we make.

Your success in your next job interview may not have much to do with the contents of your resume. Instead, it may depend on what’s under your resume. Namely: Have the people interviewing you put your CV on a heavy clipboard, or a light one?

That is one finding made by Joshua Ackerman, an assistant professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management, whose research indicates that haptic impressions — our sense of touch — may strongly influence our thoughts.

“Our understanding of the world and our social environment is not just a product of our minds,” says Ackerman. “It’s a product of our bodies as well.”

In a new paper, “Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions,” published this week in the journal Science, Ackerman and his co-authors, Christopher Nocera of Harvard and John Bargh of Yale, describe the results of six studies showing a variety of ways that tactile sensations can affect decision-making. From workplace judgments to financial decisions, they write, “haptically acquired information exerts a rather broad influence over cognition, in ways of which we are probably often unaware.”

Consider the clipboard test. Ackerman, Nocera and Bargh asked 54 people to scrutinize a job candidate by looking at a resume placed on either light or heavy boards. The people using heavy clipboards viewed the candidate as possessing a “more serious interest” in the job opening than those holding the resume on lighter clipboards.

“First impressions are liable to be influenced by one’s tactile environment,” the authors write. Adds Ackerman: “It’s a surprising result because it’s so simple.”

Alternately, the authors write, how much you are willing to pay for a car may depend on the kind of chair you sit in while thinking about the matter. They based this conclusion on the results of a trial in which 86 people were asked to make two hypothetical offers to a car dealer, starting at a price of $16,500, with the second offer made on the assumption that the first one had been rejected. The second offers from participants who sat in soft, cushioned chairs were 39 percent higher than those made by participants sitting on hard chairs. In this case, the “hardness [of the chair] produces perceptions of strictness, rigidity, and stability, reducing change from one’s initial decisions,” write Ackerman, Nocera and Bargh.

Early-childhood education

One reason this occurs, the authors suggest, is that “sensorimotor experiences” — those occurring in infancy, when a child is first exploring the world — “form a scaffold for the development of conceptual knowledge.” Touching objects in everyday life, they theorize, may not only produce physical sensations, but may also generate familiar ideas.

“As people develop and explore the world through touch, they use these physical actions to develop an idea of the world,” says Ackerman. When people later use their sense of touch to form judgments in everyday life, he adds, “They are taking the easiest route to obtaining information, by drawing on the ideas they already have developed.”

Other researchers say the suite of experiments described in the paper is impressive. “While each study is fairly persuasive on its own, taken together they form a clear picture of the importance of touch on cognition,” says Lawrence Williams, a trained psychologist who is a professor of marketing at the University of Colorado. Given the notion that haptic learning begins early, Williams adds, one promising area of research involves future experiments on the responses of infants to various touch sensations. “Would pre-verbal children show these effects if you could design studies at their level?” asks Williams.

The authors believe their insights could have practical applications for many people in the business world, including job seekers, marketers, pollsters and more. Understanding how the tactile environment influences perceptions could be relevant in “almost any situation where you’re trying to present information about yourself, or where there is a person attempting to influence others,” claims Ackerman.

Ackerman’s future research includes more work on haptic influences; at the moment he is studying how different experiences of touch influence our coordination and other physical activities.

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