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How physical sensations influence decision making
August 25, 2010

The success of your next job interview may hinge in part on something that seems arbitrary: have the people interviewing you put your CV on a heavy clipboard or a light one?

New research by Joshua Ackerman, an assistant professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management, indicates that such tactile impressions strongly influence our thoughts, from workplace judgments to financial decisions. “Our understanding of the world and our social environment is not just a product of our minds,” says Ackerman. “It’s a product of our bodies as well.”

In a paper published in Science, ­Ackerman, Christopher Nocera of Harvard, and John Bargh of Yale describe six studies demonstrating that such information “exerts a broad influence over cognition, in ways of which we are probably often unaware.”

In the clipboard test, 54 people scrutinized job applicants. The test subjects believed that the candidates whose résumés were placed on heavy clipboards had a “more serious interest” in the job opening than candidates whose résumés rested on lighter clipboards.

“It’s a surprising result because it’s so simple,” says Ackerman.

In another study, the researchers asked 86 people to make two hypothetical offers to a car dealer and found that negotiating tactics were influenced by the type of chair the dealer used. The participants all made an initial offer and then were asked to make a higher bid after being told that the first was rejected. The second offers from people who sat in soft, cushioned chairs were 39 percent higher than the bids from people seated in hard chairs. The hardness “produces perceptions of strictness, rigidity, and stability, reducing change from one’s initial decisions,” the researchers write.

This phenomenon, they suggest, stems from the sensorimotor experiences of infants, which “form a scaffold for the development of conceptual knowledge” that’s used years later.

“As people develop and explore the world through touch, they use these physical actions to develop an idea of the world,” says Ackerman. Adults are thus drawing on ideas they have already developed through these earlier sensations.

Lawrence Williams, a professor of marketing at the University of Colorado and a trained psychologist, thinks the experiments “form a clear picture of the importance of touch on cognition.” The authors, meanwhile, believe that their insights could have applications for job seekers, marketers, and pollsters. They could be relevant to “almost any situation where you’re trying to present information about yourself, or where there is a person attempting to influence others,” says Ackerman.

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