Holding something heavy makes people feel more serious

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Stroking a white cat didn't seem to make Blofeld particularly affectionate in You Only Live Twice - but maybe he'd have been even nastier if he'd been holding a rock.

Because, according to MIT researchers, what you're touching influences your reaction to the people around you and affects the decisions you make.

Heavy objects make job candidates appear more important, they say, while rough ones make social interactions appear more difficult. Hard objects increase rigidity in negotiations.

"What we touch unconsciously influences how we think," says Joshua Ackerman, an assistant professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

"In situations where evaluations and decisions really matter, we need to pay attention to our physical surroundings and, in particular, how we engage these surroundings through our sense of touch."

Ackerman and his colleagues conducted a series of six experiments and found that basic tactile sensations influence higher social cognitive processing.

In ones, passers-by evaluated a job candidate by reviewing resumes either on light or heavier clipboards. Participants using heavy clipboards rated the candidate as better overall - and even rated their own accuracy on the task as more important than those using the lighter clipboard.

Likewise, participants who sat in hard chairs while summing up a potential employee believed him to be both more stable than those sitting in a softer chair.

One explanation lies in the use of common metaphors such as 'having a rough day', 'coarse language', 'thinking about weighty matters', and the 'gravity of the situation', implying that heaviness equates to importance and seriousness, and roughness to decreased coordination.

"I find it amazing that subtle actions like touching sandpaper or sitting in a hard chair can have such an influence over very important decisions, such as which candidate we're willing to hire, how generous we are, and how much we're willing to pay for big ticket purchases," says Ackerman.