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Hard chairs drive hard bargains: Physical sensations translate to social perceptions

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in negotiating touch sensations can determine how people perceive social interactionsHad a hard day? It might not be your abstract experiences that are causing you to think that way, but rather the physical surfaces you’re touching.

A new study lends credence to many of the common physical metaphors we use to describe the subjectivity of our daily lives. In six experiments, researchers found that what a person was holding—whether it was hard, soft, rough, smooth, heavy or light—had a profound impact on how they perceived unrelated events and interactions.

For one part of the study, researchers asked 54 people to evaluate job candidates by reading over resumes attached to clipboards. Those people who had been reading resumes on heavy clipboards rated the identical hopefuls as better overall job candidates. (Although, the authors noted, these heavyweight candidates were not thought to be more likely to "get along" with others in the office.)

In another experiment, 64 volunteers were asked to complete a five-piece puzzle that was either left smooth or had pieces covered in rough sandpaper. After the puzzle, they read and evaluate an account of an ambiguous social encounter. People who had handled the rough puzzle pieces were more likely to describe the social interaction as "less coordinated" and more difficult than those who had assembled the smooth puzzle.

And to see if other, more passively perceived surfaces could affect a person’s mindset, the researchers had volunteers pretend to negotiate the purchase price of a car while sitting in either hard or soft chairs. Those who happened to be sitting in hard chairs seemed to perceive the situation as more rigid, presenting second offers much closer to the original sticker price than those who had been seated in softer seats.

The findings, published online June 24 in Science, show that subtle differences in tactile sensations can "influence our impressions and decisions, even when the people and events those impressions and decisions concerned are entirely unrelated to what is being touched," the authors noted in their study.

The work also calls attention to the often-overlooked power of touch. "People often assume that exploration of new things occurs primarily through the eyes," Christopher Nocera, a graduate researcher at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology and coauthor of the study, said in a prepared statement. But, he noted, when we lay eyes on an unfamiliar object, we often extend our hand and "ask, ‘Can I see that?’" he explained. "This response suggests the investigation is not limited to vision, but rather the integrative sum of seeing, feeling, touching and manipulating the unfamiliar object."

The results could also help explain some of our most common social interactions. "Our work suggests that greetings involving touch, such as handshakes and cheek kisses, may in fact have critical influences on our social interactions in an unconscious fashion," Nocera said.

And if these tactile messages are as strong as this study suggests, small cues could be put to some serious use. "First impressions are liable to be influenced by the tactile environment," the authors concluded. "Control over this environment may be especially important for negotiators, pollsters, job seekers and others interested in interpersonal communications." So next time you have to talk money, it might pay to check out the chairs first.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

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  1. 1. greenisimo 12:07 pm 06/25/2010

    So the catholics had it right all these years? – @greenisimo

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  2. 2. stine 2:01 pm 07/7/2010

    I wonder if the volunteers were given the option (hard chair vs soft chair) etc. Because that would matter when looking at the outcome of the experiment. Someone less assertive would maybe choose to sit in a soft chair?

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