Your Brain and the hidden power of stuff
“The things you own end up owning you.”
—CHUCK PALAHNIUK, FIGHT CLUB
Brains at My Fingertips
A few years ago I was part of a group that was making a presentation to state health agencies on effective ways to educate the public about air quality. During our last practice session before the real presentation, one of the seasoned and sly presenters brought in three massive bound documents and dropped them with a thud on the lectern. Before we started, I asked him what he was going to do with them. He replied, “You’ll see.”
When it was his turn to present, I did indeed see. Every time he made reference to research backing up his assertions, he lifted one of the documents high enough for the audience to see, and then judiciously dropped it onto the wood surface, just enough for everyone to feel the weight of it. I never asked him if the documents actually contained the research he was mentioning, but it really didn’t matter. The effect was potent.
What I didn’t know at the time is that this trick was making use of something cognitive psychologists call embodied cognition—the hypothesis that bodily perceptions, like touch, strongly influence how we think. Another way to explain it is that our brain is not restricted to the space between our ears. Since our entire nervous system is integral to thinking, it makes sense that the physical sensations out in the world would influence our perception. What makes this hypothesis so interesting, however, is that these influences affect us without our notice. Let’s take a look at a handful of experiments that illustrate the point.
Heavy Is the Mind
A study entitled “Weight as an Embodiment of Importance,” sheds light on the example I used at the beginning of this post. Over the course of multiple experiments, researchers investigated whether judgments of importance are tied to an experience of weight.1 For a little context, consider how many ways in which weight—or facilitators of weight—overtly affect our judgments. In English, we use the term “weighty” to signify something substantial and important. We also use the term “gravitas” to connote seriousness, an elaboration on our understanding of gravity as a force exerting the power of weight over everything around us (and ourselves). We also think of weight as the arbiter of physical strength: The more someone can lift—or looks as if he or she can lift—the more impressive. Weight is even a socioeconomic force, as in the size of someone’s car or SUV. I recall when the Hummer first arrived on the scene, we heard a lot about it being a “six-ton SUV,” as if that specification made it more noteworthy than any other SUV.
In the study, a group of participants were first asked to estimate the value of several foreign currencies while they held a clipboard. Some held a light clipboard, others held a heavy one. As predicted, participants who held the heavy clipboards estimated the value of the currencies significantly higher than those who held light clipboards.
The second study repeated the first, but instead of judging currencies, participants were asked to judge the importance of having a voice in an important decision-making process (they were given a scenario involving a crucial decision affecting them being made by a university board). Again, participants holding heavy clipboards judged the importance of having a voice in the decision as more important than those holding light clipboards—a result showing that even something abstract, like making a decision, is tied to experience of weight.
In the final two studies, participants were asked to agree or disagree with arguments of varying strengths. This is a test of cognitive elaboration, one’s tendency to assume and defend a strong position in light of given factors.
The results again showed that people holding heavy clipboards assumed stronger, more polarized positions than those holding light clipboards, and made significantly stronger arguments in defense of the positions. Opinions of those with the heavy clipboards were voiced more vituperatively than the others as well.
Bitter Taste, Bitter Judgment
If you’ve ever had a sip of the “bitters,” your face probably scrunches up just thinking about it. According to a study from researchers at Brooklyn College, the horrible taste may do more than make you pucker. Researchers had fifty-seven undergraduate students rate their moral distaste for several morally dubious acts, like politicians taking bribes, two second cousins sleeping together, and a man eating his dog. Before they started rating the acts, the students drank shots of one of three drinks: Swedish bitters, sweet berry punch, or water. On a 100-point scale, with 100 being the worst rating for a morally reprehensible act, the students who drank the bitters gave the acts an average rating of 78; those who drank sweet berry punch gave an average of 60; and the water group gave an average of 62. The ratings of the punch and water groups were statistically the same, but the bitters group was significantly higher, indicating that the bad taste increased the students’ moral disapproval.
What makes this series of studies so impressive is that they cut across tangible and intangible variables (currencies versus decisions, arguments, etc.) and arrived at a quite consistent result: Experience of weight affects our thinking—and does so without our notice.
If You’re Feeling Warm and Fuzzy, It Might Just Be the Coffee
If you have a falling out with someone and he starts ignoring you, he’s “giving you the cold shoulder.” If you feel emotionally close to someone, you have “warm feelings” toward that person. We’re accustomed to using metaphorical language like this to describe human relationships, but do these words also imply more literal meanings?
A study in the journal Psychological Science delved into whether the actual experience of warmth or coldness influences our perception of social relationships. In other words, are temperature differences really tied to differences in social closeness and social distance?
The study included three experiments; in the first, participants entered the lab and were handed either a cold or a warm beverage. They were then asked to fill out a questionnaire (which was just a prop for the study), and then asked to select a person they knew and rate their relationship with that person on a scale called the Inclusion of Other in Self, designed to determine the degree of closeness between the subject and the person he or she selected. At no time were the subjects made aware why they were holding a warm or cold beverage—all they knew is that they were being asked to complete a few questionnaires.
The results: Subjects holding the warm beverage had a significantly higher level of perceived closeness to the individual they selected than subjects holding the cold beverage, bearing out the hypothesis that physical warmth is tied to perception of social “warmth.”
Take Two Photos of Your Loved One and Call Me in the Morning
As everyone who has been hospitalized knows, the pain is easier to bear if you have loved ones nearby. A study investigated whether the pain relief we get from this kind of support can be achieved with a photograph of a supporter instead of the real thing. The subjects were twenty-eight women in long-term relationships. They were brought into a testing room and their partners were brought into another to have photos taken. The women underwent testing to determine their pain thresholds via thermal stimulation. Once the thresholds were established for each subject, they were then exposed to a series of conditions while experiencing pain, including (1) holding the hand of their partner as he sat behind a curtain, (2) holding a squeeze ball, (3) holding the hand of a stranger, (4) viewing a photograph of their partner on a computer screen, (5) viewing a photograph of a male stranger, and (6) viewing nothing. Subjects rated each condition’s unpleasantness on a twenty-one-point numerical scale. Here’s what happened: As expected, holding their partner’s hand resulted in significantly reduced pain ratings when compared to holding an object or a stranger’s hand. Viewing their partner’s photograph also produced significant pain reduction when compared to the object and stranger conditions. Interestingly, viewing a photo was also marginally more effective than holding their partner’s hand. What seems to be happening here is that our brains can be made to conjure mental associations with being loved and supported just by viewing a photo—and this effect is potent enough to actually reduce how much pain is felt. And, as the results suggest, in some cases a photo may be even more effective than the genuine article.
The second experiment investigated whether watching film clips in a warm or cold room influenced the choice of language used to describe the film, with the hypothesis being that warmer temperatures will influence subjects to use more concrete language (such as “John punched David”) versus more abstract descriptions (“John is angry with David”). The results were that subjects watching in the warm room did in fact use more concrete language to describe the film than did subjects in the cold room, who used abstract terms to describe the same clips. Previous research has shown that use of concrete language strongly correlates with a sense of social closeness, whereas abstract language correlates with social distance.
Come Heavy and Sit Hard
A well-publicized study published in 2010 did an especially nice job of bearing out the embodied cognition theory. Researchers from MIT, Harvard, and Yale performed six experiments exploring whether the hardness, weight, shape, and texture of certain objects affect our decisions about totally unrelated situations. For example, the study shows that when you’re negotiating a deal, it’s better to sit in a hard, sturdy chair—doing so may lead you to negotiate harder than you otherwise would. And when you go for a job interview, be sure to carry your resume in a weighty, well-constructed padfolio; according to the study, job candidates appear more important when they are associated with heavy objects. And when you invite your date over for dinner, keep the setting “smooth”—objects with a rough texture make social interactions seem more difficult than they really are. So put away those glasses with the beveled edges and your evening will stand a better chance of success.