How sandpaper and warm cups influence our behaviour

We learn from our sensory experiences and make direct use of this information when evaluating situations. Not just in the notorious case of the limp handshake.

Social psychologists Lawrence Williams and John Bargh discovered that we perceive people as being more socially competent if we are holding a cup of hot coffee in our hands. The temperature we feel influences our perception of the temperament of the person in front of us: If we’re holding a cold drink in our hands, we perceive the same person as more distant and cool. In point of fact, the area of the brain that becomes active when we assess reliability also reacts to the temperature of our own skin – automatically, so it is impossible for us to respond any differently.

The haptic experiences we’ve had prior to an encounter also have an effect on how we ultimately evaluate them. Accordingly, we perceive a conversation more negatively if we have touched a surface of coarse sandpaper beforehand.

The hardness of an object also has a similar effect: In an experiment, people who had just touched a hard object assessed the behaviour of an employee in conversation with his or her boss as rather stiff. People who had touched a soft substance beforehand saw the employee as being entirely cooperative.

In another experiment, researchers asked passers-by to read someone’s job application and assess their competency. The decisive factor in their assessments was not so much the content of the application but the weight of the clipboard used: applications read on a heavy clipboard were assessed more positively than the same applications read on a lighter clipboard – the test subjects assessed the applicants presented on heavy clipboards as more suitable: Thus “heavy” is associated with importance, seriousness and competency – not only on a linguistic level. The huge influence that our sense of touch has on our behaviour is not really surprising, according to social psychologist John Bargh from Yale University. Tactile stimuli shape our impressions of the world from birth: “They are decisive in terms of how small children and adults ultimately develop abstract ideas about people and their interactions – for example, recognising the meaning of a warm smile or a hard heart.”

In conclusion, a small but useful tip: If you would like to get off to a good start in negotiations, you should offer your negotiating partner a soft armchair. Hard chairs lead to hard positions. No joke.

Ackerman, Nocera, Bargh: Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgements and Decisions, Science 328, 2010.

Photo credits: Gabriele Basilico (1944-2013) was an Italian photographer who played an important role in contemporary photographic arts. In 1990 he received the Prix Mois de la Photo in Paris and in 1996 was honoured with the prestigious Premio Osella d’Oro award at the Architecture Biennale in Venice. “Contact” is considered to be a milestone in creative product photography.