Weight, Texture, and Hardness
In the first study, the researchers asked participants to evaluate a job candidate by reviewing that person’s resume. They gave each participant the candidate’s resume on either a light-weight clipboard (.75 pounds) or a heavy clipboard (4.5 pounds). In comparison to those using the lighter clipboard, people who reviewed the resume on the heavier clipboard
- rated the candidate as better qualified
- said the candidate would be more serious about the position
- rated the accuracy of their own evaluation as more important
In another study, researchers were interested in determining how texture would affect people’s judgment. They first asked participants to complete a puzzle. Half of the participants worked with puzzle pieces that were covered with sandpaper, while the other half worked with pieces that were smooth. Once participants had completed the puzzle, they told them to read a story describing an ambiguous social interaction and asked them whether they considered the interaction to be adversarial or friendly. Participants who had handled puzzle pieces that were covered in sandpaper rated the interaction as more adversarial and harsh than those who had handled smooth pieces.
In a different study, researchers were interested in determining the effect of hardness on people’s perception and judgment. They started out by asking participants to examine one of two objects—a soft blanket or a block of wood. Next, they asked participants to read about an interaction between a manager and an employee, then rate the employee’s behavior. Those who had handled the wood block rated the employee as being more rigid and strict than those who had handled the blanket.
The Linkage Between Touch and Thought
All of these studies suggest that there is an essential linkage between what we touch and what we think. Researchers believe that, because physical touch is the first of our senses to develop, it provides the foundation and framework for how we are able to later develop and understand abstract concepts about people and relationships.
Ultimately, the association between touch and thought becomes so intertwined that, when we touch something, the sensation itself can activate the abstract concepts that have become associated with that sensation. Thus, touching something can create mindsets that influence people’s perception and judgment. Our understanding of abstract concepts is deeply rooted in our physical experiences, so what we touch subconsciously influences how we think.
Researchers have found that the tactile sensations of weight, texture, and hardness are linked to very specific concepts. There is a specific mapping between each type of physical sensation and the abstract concepts that have become associated with it, as follows:
- Weight is associated with seriousness and importance.
- Rough texture is associated with harshness and difficulty.
- Hardness is associated with rigidity and stability.
In the clipboard study, for example, the weight of the clipboard did not affect people’s perception of the candidate’s likability and cooperativeness, because these traits are not related to seriousness or importance.
Touch is such an important aspect of how we think that even passive touch experiences can have an effect on our judgment. In one study, researchers asked participants to shop for a new car, then make an offer to buy it. Half of the participants were seated in hard, wooden chairs, while the others sat in soft, cushioned chairs. The researchers found that, when the participants’ initial offer was rejected, those who were seated in hard chairs changed their follow-up offer price by a smaller amount than those sitting in soft chairs. The hardness of the chair seemed to make people more rigid and less willing to deviate from their initial offer. Those sitting in hard chairs also judged their counterpart to be more stable and less emotional than those sitting in soft chairs.
Implications for UX Design
The study of embodied cognition is interesting from a UX design perspective in a number of ways—primarily because it does away with the idea that the mind is somehow separate from the body. Studies in embodied cognition show that there is an essential linkage between what we experience bodily—while interacting with the physical world—and our higher levels of thinking, including judgment and decision making. This is important because it has implications for how we conduct UX design research, how we design products and services, and how we can better understand our products’ users.
Clearly, the physical design of products and tools has a substantial impact on people’s perceptions and judgments about them. Research shows, for example, that shoppers who can see and examine products directly—as they can in a bricks-and-mortar store environment—can more readily form confident impressions of those products because of their ability to physically interact with them.
Tactile sensations can influence perceptions and opinions about a product’s quality—even when touching the product or its packaging doesn’t provide any information about its quality. For instance, water seems to taste better when it comes from a firm bottle rather than from a flimsy one.
Apple regularly uses rounded edges in its design of physical products to convey a sense of ease. This leads me to wonder: Do rounded edges in the graphic design elements of a software user interface have a similar effect? Do we subconsciously associate what we see in user interfaces with mental constructs that are associated with what we’ve experienced from a sensory perspective in the physical world? Given the importance of touch in how we perceive the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.