The Power of Touch

The Power of Touch

From the bedroom to the boardroom, what you're sitting on or holding in a negotiation may actually influence the outcome.

How something feels—literally—can influence how we perceive situations and relate to others. As newborns, one of the first ways we learn is through touch—which may be one reason the sense of touch is so powerful, says Joshua Ackerman, assistant professor of marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Ackerman studies how sensations influence social judgments, contributing to a growing body of research that finds that the texture and weight of objects can affect human perception in multiple ways—a phenomenon that researchers call embodied cognition. His team’s research, published in the journal Science, discovered that participants were unconsciously swayed by touch sensations. For example, participants holding heavy clipboards perceived job candidates as more important than if they were holding lighter clipboards. Solving rough-edged puzzles made social interactions seem more difficult than they did when people were solving smooth-edged puzzles. Touching hard objects made people more rigid when negotiating than if they were holding soft objects. In a new study by researchers in the Netherlands, participants who read about an ambiguous conversation between an employee and a boss judged the employee more positively when they sat in a soft chair versus a hard one.

“These effects primarily occur outside of conscious awareness,” Ackerman says. By paying attention to them in sensitive situations—when negotiating a salary, for example, or buying a high-priced item—we can diminish the effects they have on our decision making. So, the next time you find yourself in an interaction that feels unusually difficult, you might want to consider what you’re sitting on or holding.

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