How The Sense Of Touch Influences The Mind

Reporting in Science, researchers describe how the sense of touch influences the mind's judgments and decision-making processes. John Bargh, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale, discusses the findings, including why sitting on a hard wooden chair may turn people into tougher negotiators.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

If you go to your car dealership - have you been out to one lately? - you may find that the car salesman wants to close the deal, sell you the car, right as you sit in that plush driver's seat. No need to go back to that cramped office. He'll just whip out his iPad and write up the paperwork, punch it in there, right there in the car.

The car dealer may know something that you don't, something that my next guest studies: your sense of touch. That soft, cushy leather may influence your decision-making and break down your ability to be a hard bargainer. He published his work on touch and decision in this week's Science. John Bargh is a professor of psychology in cognitive science at Yale University. He joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor JOHN A. BARGH (Psychology, Yale University): Thank you, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Do you think that car salesman knew something about...

Prof. BARGH: Oh, they know a lot that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BARGH: ...they don't let on to us, that's for sure.

FLATOW: But your work involves sitting in soft or hard seats, doesn't it?

Prof. BARGH: Are you sitting in one right now?

FLATOW: I'm in a soft seat, yes.

Prof. BARGH: Me too.

FLATOW: Oh, that's good because if I were in a hard one, you're saying I might - you might have an advantage on me.

Prof. BARGH: Of course. And I've also got a nice hot cup of coffee in my hand.

FLATOW: Tell us about why - how that affects the way we deal with each other.

Prof. BARGH: Well, the interesting thing here is that the physical sensations that you pick up from just mere touching or your bodily contact. For example, it's not just all hands. It's, you know, this happens through the seat of your pants, too, like you just said, with the hard chairs or soft chairs.

The interesting thing is that these concepts have metaphorical meaning. So when we talk about something hard, we don't just mean something physically hard but we can mean something difficult or we can mean something that wasn't - didn't go so easily and so forth. So the - it's interesting how many of these terms have physical reference.

We talk about close relationships, but we talk about a warm person, but that warm person is the same body temperature, 98.6 Fahrenheit, you know, as the rest of us, and not any warmer or colder. And yet we talk about people in these - with these physical terms so easily and fluently and we all know what each other means. I mean, it's something very natural. And I think this reflects something in other people like George Lakoff, especially, for many years, a philosopher at Berkeley, has, for many years, argued that these reflect some connection or architecture of our mind...

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Prof. BARGH: ...where the more abstract concepts we form in childhood and adulthood are based on these early-formed physical concepts that we make in -basically in infancy and early childhood.

FLATOW: So let's talk about some of the - some of these things that you studied in your paper, and one of them was this - the seat that we're talking about. What's the difference between if I'm sitting in a hard seat or a soft seat?

Prof. BARGH: So the way this works is if you're sitting in a hard seat, that would, I guess, activate a concept of hardness in your mind. This experience is - just being in a hard chair, the chair is hard so the concept in your mind of hardness is activated, the physical sense of hardness.

However, over your life, you've developed other meanings for that word and other abstract meanings like difficult and so forth. And they're also in that concept now. So even though the concept may have started out...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BARGH: ...with only physical reference, it acquires these other reference. So now, by sitting on a hard chair, the concept of hardness physically is activated, but also gives other meanings, like difficulty or so forth. And this happens with the one - with smoothness and roughness as well. Touching something that's rough activates the concept of roughness, which also has acquired these new additional meanings of something that's rough and has resistance and doesn't go smoothly. And now - what we have now, is a bias that's been activated. So (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: And you can actually measure that bias.

Prof. BARGH: Exactly, we can put people in...

FLATOW: So if I'm sitting in a hard seat, you can actually measure that I'm a harder person.

Prof. BARGH: We can, for example, put people around a table as you opened up with there, and have them sit on hard or soft chairs and see how easily they negotiate with each other. For example, do they compromise?

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. BARGH: Or maybe they don't compromise. So if you're sitting in that soft chair, you're not going to be that willing at the car dealership - as in your great example - you're not going to be so able to - or maybe even willing, to negotiate with the car salesman.

FLATOW: And also you - as you say, you've discovered this with smooth or rough surfaces. I can become a tougher person to deal with, if I'm touching a rougher surface.

Prof. BARGH: Exactly. And, in fact, we just came up with a new one I don't think people have studied yet, the tough one, you know? For example, it's possible, if we have people on our studies chew a piece of tough steak. You know, they'll be tougher on other people and, you know, not evaluate them so well, that kind of thing. It's really remarkable. I dont know if we saw this coming, like, 10 years ago in the field. This was also pretty much last five years that we've...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof BARGH: ...seen how closely our mental life, our thoughts are tied to our physical bodies, you know, this mind-body dualism that Descartes and others have classically talked about in philosophy, as if the mind was an idealized, separate thing from the body. I think this research really demolishes that dualism because our thoughts are tied very closely to our physical experiences - and, of course, without our knowing it.

FLATOW: Let's go to Marge in Saint Cloud, Minnesota. Hi, Marge.

MARGE (Caller): Hi. My first - my comment is - I'm delighted you're finally studying the sense of touch. I read Ashley Montagu's book...

Prof. BARGH: Mm-hmm.

MARGE: ..."Touching" in the '50s. And he was predominantly talking about (unintelligible) - the - even how digestion is improved. And I'm totally blind and - so, I read Braille, and so on.

Prof. BARGH: Mm-hmm.

MARGE: I'm sitting in a soft chair holding a kitty right now...

Prof. BARGH: Mm-hmm.

MARGE: ...feeling pretty relaxed.

Prof. BARGH: Mm-hmm.

MARGE: And - but - and I think you'd answered my question.

FLATOW: Well, let me ask you, Marge. If you're holding a hot cup of coffee, does that even relax you - make you a warmer person?

MARGE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: And that's what you found out also, John. Isn't it?

Prof. BARGH: That was a paper we had come out two years ago. Lawrence Williams - who's now at Colorado - and I started looking at hot and cold coffee. We were struck by the fact that we talk about people being warm or cold, and how that makes a huge difference in how we form impressions of them.

If you hear about somebody and they're a warm person, you like them great and you think the other things you learn about them are all positive, too, when a cold person is just seen as not retrievable...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. BARGH: ...just a person who just - you just - are not going to be dealing with. But no one ever asked the question: Why do we use those terms? Instead of something like cooperative and competitive or friend or foe or good or bad -but we don't.

We use the specific terms, warm and cold. And again, this reflects some deep connection to actual physical warmth or coldness. And, you know, all these studies have looked at - Marge, you it might be, you know, interested in where these things came from, originally.

And what we're thinking is that your early experience as a child really has a lot more to do with the physical world than anything else, because when you're a child or an infant, you're not really able yet to compare things to your memory. That's why we don't have very good memories, you know, before the age of four or three. It's not something we can do yet. We can't compare our current experience to our past experience through retrieving memories.

So, the concept - the only concepts, really, that infants can form are those where the information's right out there in front of them all the time. They can compare things they're seeing right now. They can see things that are far apart or close together.

They can touch something and feel something warm. They can explore with their hands and sense roughness and sense smoothness and something hard. All these things are available to infants because they're all - they're readily in their sensory experience. And they don't have to use their memory or other kinds of advanced thought techniques or thought strategies that you can develop only later at four or five and later years.

So that's why these physical concepts get in there early. And then - of course, we all know about the power of the importance of early learning and early experience in childhood, how that sets you up, often, for the rest of your whole life with your temperament and everything else.

So these early concepts had a huge influence on both of the development of further abstract concepts about, say, cooperating or helping and things like that. And also, you know, they're still there in adulthood and they're still very much influencing us as adults.

FLATOW: Thanks for the call, Marge. I think have - quickly for Deidre in Cleveland. Hi, Deidre.

DEIDRE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: All right. Go ahead.

DEIDRE: My question is - back to the comfy chair versus the hard chair.

Prof. BARGH: Mm-hmm.

DEIDRE: I'm a student, and in one of my classes, there are some hard chairs and there are some more plush chairs, though nothing's really comfortable like a La-Z-Boy.

Prof. BARGH: Mm-hmm.

DEIDRE: Have you studied how that influences how we learn in classroom, and maybe look at the difficulty of the subject?

Prof. BARGH: No, we haven't. This paper that came out today is the first study showing these effects at all. So, there are really a lot of interesting follow-ups. I think you just hit on one that would be an excellent...

FLATOW: That'd be good. Can you make a subject easier to absorb by being in a softer chair?

Prof. BARGH: I would think so. I mean, the idea is that the hardness of the chair would make you probably experience the subject matter as harder or more difficult.

Now I think there's individual differences that might operate. For example, there are some people who, when something as hard, they might give up or they might walk away from it and not engage it because they think it's too hard.

Other people, if something is hard, they increase their effort. They say, okay, it's going to take more effort for me to master this material. And actually, that might help that person.

So I have a feeling that it might be some people are helped and some people are harmed, depending on how they face difficult things in their life, usually.

FLATOW: Can we help shape how people react to us by offering them a hot cup of coffee or a softer chair or, you know, be an easier(ph) negotiation? Can we make use of this knowledge?

Prof. BARGH: This is an interesting topic, because I think by talking about this today, Ira, and having this paper come out in Science and all that, I think we might have started an arms race...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BARGH: ...in that we have two sides of this. We have the person trying to influence your impression, but you also have a person on guard about these influence attempts. And sometimes when people overdo these ingratiation or tactics, you catch on to it. And if you catch to what a person is trying to do - by being too flattering, you know, for example - then usually, it backfires.

So, it's possible that if someone catches onto this - and now, everyone knows that, say, about, the coffee or the chair effect - that if they see you doing it, it might actually backfire.

So I would suggest being subtle if you try this at home or at the office. But at the same time, watch out for these effects in you own life - in your own decisions.

FLATOW: Interesting. Couple of weeks ago, we had a story about washing your hands will make you help you change your decision about something.

Prof. BARGH: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: And so, maybe you should go wash your hands after - somebody's offered you a hot cup of coffee so you can think about it a little bit.

Prof. BARGH: That's an excellent idea. Yeah. The Macbeth effect of...

FLATOW: That's right.

Prof. BARGH: ...washing your hands on moral judgments, too, is a famous new one from the last two or three years.

FLATOW: So where do you go next on this?

Prof. BARGH: Well, we're in - generally, looking for the priming effects. What are called these priming effects are activations coming from the outside environment on - in your mind that then bias you or create different ways of thinking that you wouldn't engage in normally.

So, the (unintelligible) touch mode of physical experiences is now very important one in the paper. Senior author Josh Ackerman writes a really nice section about how hands are so important for exploration and acquisition of information in infancy and young childhood. Again, that emphasizes that point about the importance of early childhood experience. Where we're going, I think, is along the line of Deidre's question and maybe Marge's question, too, in that I'd like to find out more about how people already know about these effects.

For example, with the effect of warmth, we all know that a warm fireplace is wonderful to have people sit around and warm drinks or, you know, even alcoholic beverages that warm the throat give you a warm feeling inside are really important for social gatherings and social warmth.

So I have a feeling at some deep level, we sort of appreciate these already, but we may not know it explicitly. Like, we are, you know, surprised by these findings, and no one has shown these things before. But at another level, we seem implicitly aware of them, and I'd like to find out more about how we are aware of these and use these ourselves in our lives.

FLATOW: Well, John, I want to give you a warm goodbye - a hearty, warm handshake, you know, a warm handshake, too.

Prof. BARGH: Very much appreciated.

FLATOW: You're welcome. John Bargh is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.

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