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Fascinating research says the objects you touch and feel directly impact your perceptions of others

Sunday, October 17, 2010 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: perceptions, touch, health news

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(NaturalNews) Our impressions of people and our reactions to situations are affected in surprising ways by our sense of touch, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard and Yale have found.

"Physical experiences really become factors in how people understand the world,'' lead researcher Joshua Ackerman said. "It involves the body as well as the mind.''

In a prior study, researcher John Bargh found that holding a warm cup caused people to develop "warmer" feelings toward another person, while a cold cup was associated with "colder" feelings. To follow up on these findings, Bargh teamed up with other researchers for six new experiments into how haptic impressions (the sense of touch) influence our perception of people and events.

The findings, published in the journal Science, do a good job at making the authors' case, said psychologist Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado.

"While each study is fairly persuasive on its own, taken together they form a clear picture of the importance of touch on cognition," Williams said.

All participants were recruited from passersby on the streets near MIT and Yale. In the first experiment, researchers handed 54 participants a resume on a clipboard, and asked them for their impressions of the candidate. They found that the heavier the clipboard, the more serious participants tended to think the applicant was about the position. This effect did not translate to impressions of how well the applicant would get along with other people, however.

"First impressions are liable to be influenced by one's tactile environment," the authors wrote.

"It's a surprising result because it's so simple," Ackerman said.

In a second experiment, researchers asked participants who had just completed a jigsaw puzzle whether a conversation between two people was friendly or hostile. Participants who had worked on a puzzle with sandpaper-rough pieces were significantly more likely to say that the conversation was adversarial than participants who had worked on a puzzle with smooth pieces.

In a third experiment, researchers had 86 participants sit in either hard or soft chairs to enact a price negotiation over a car. Each participant was instructed to start with an offer of $16,500. When this offer was rejected, participants were significantly more likely to stick closer to their original offer if they sat in a harder chair. In fact, second offers by participants in softer chairs were 39 percent higher than those by participants in hard chairs.

"Hardness [of the chair] produces perceptions of strictness, rigidity, and stability, reducing change from one's initial decisions," the researchers wrote.

"Haptically acquired information exerts a rather broad influence over cognition, in ways of which we are probably often unaware," they concluded.

These effects are already well-known to many companies, Ackerman said, noting that Apple deliberately designs products with smooth, rounded edges.

"Smooth products make makes them seem easier to use and may make them seem to perform better,'' Ackerman said.

Similar useful applications might be found for "almost any situation where you're trying to present information about yourself, or where there is a person attempting to influence others," Ackerman said.

The researchers believe that the effect may be explained by the way that human thought processes develop -- through experience of the physical world.

"As people develop and explore the world through touch, they use these physical actions to develop an idea of the world," Ackerman said.

For example, the first time a young child touches sandpaper, they may come to associate that feeling with things not going smoothly in general.

"People understand the world in the easiest way they can, and the easiest way they can is by using information they previously acquired,'' Ackerman said. "Information they previously acquired is through physical experience.''

Sources for this story include: http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/... http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/haptic-06....

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