Embodied Cognition and How It Affects Judgment and Decision Making

Decision Architecture

Designing for decision making

A column by Colleen Roller
August 8, 2011
  • Why do resumes on heavy clipboards make job candidates seem better qualified?
  • Why do rough objects make social interactions seem more difficult?
  • Why do hard chairs increase rigidity in negotiations?

In the realm of judgment and decision making, these are questions worth pondering, because research shows that people’s mindset is very much affected by what they physically touch. In this column, we’ll take a look at some fascinating studies in the area of embodied cognition that reveal the important linkage between what we touch and what we think—and how it affects both judgment and decision making.

We’ll start by looking at a series of studies [1] in which researchers considered three different tactile sensations—weight, texture, and hardness—and how they can influence people’s thoughts and perceptions.

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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.

Metaphor and Language

How we express ourselves through language also reflects the linkage between what we touch and what we think. Our everyday conversation is chock full of expressions that metaphorically reflect our physical experiences. Those expressions provide useful insights about the associations we make between what we touch and what we think—for example, when we’ve had a rough day, when someone is hard headed, or when we encounter coarse language.

Metaphor is pervasive in our thought processes and in our language because we build our understanding of abstract concepts and ideas directly through our physical experiences. We are constantly talking about one thing in terms of another. Metaphor is not simply a literary device—it is the means by which we understand the world around us.

Metaphor and UX Design

Because metaphor is such a powerful aspect of how people think and express themselves, it’s useful to consider how we can leverage its power in UX design. We can use metaphor in at least two important ways:

  1. To better understand our users
  2. To communicate more deeply with them

We already know that most decision making occurs at a subconscious level. People often make decisions before they’re even aware they’ve made them. To better understand what drives people’s decision making, we need a means of penetrating the workings of the subconscious mind. One way of doing this is to use a metaphor elicitation technique. When we listen for and understand what metaphors people are using, we develop a deeper comprehension of what drives their actions and behavior—as well as their judgments and decision making.

Understanding Users’ Metaphors

We can learn a lot about users’ thoughts and needs when we enable them to articulate the metaphors that structure their innermost thoughts and feelings. The use of metaphor helps people bring subconscious thoughts and feelings into conscious awareness, so they can express them. It is not enough to simply interview people and take at face value what they say. We need to help people get at what they don’t know they know. This is important because, often, consumers aren’t really aware of their needs and don’t understand how new technologies could potentially meet those needs.

In the book How Customers Think, Gerald Zaltman talks about his method of encouraging consumers to use metaphors as they provide feedback about a product or service. He conducts carefully moderated, one-on-one interviews with users. Before an interview, he asks them to gather pictures that express their thoughts and feelings about the topic at hand. During the interview, he asks each user to describe the pictures they have selected and how they relate to their thoughts and feelings about the topic.

This technique is particularly effective because imagery is the language of subconscious thought. When Zaltman asks people to describe their thoughts and feelings in terms of the pictures they have selected, the images operate as a conduit to their subconscious mind. He has found that, when he conducts such interviews with a number of people, they typically yield common themes that he can use to better understand the target audience as a whole.

In his book, Zaltman offers an example of how he used this metaphor elicitation process to reveal people’s thoughts and feelings about a company’s telephone help line. By examining the metaphors that people used to describe their experience calling into the help line, researchers were able to identify two main themes: force and movement. These themes were pervasive—regardless of whether customers were talking about positive or negative experiences with the help line.

For example, people expressed frustration with slow service—that is, a lack of movement—using the words the speed of molasses. They also talked about the importance of seeking help that would “get them going again.” These essential metaphors helped the company to understand the customer experience at a much deeper level and find innovative ways of addressing customer issues.

In addition to working on improving its customer service process—and as a result of its metaphor elicitation research—the company now puts a lightning bolt next to its phone number on its packaging and other print materials. The company has also trained its customer service personnel to use language, or metaphors, that would readily resonate with customers—for example, “Let’s conquer this problem.” or “Let’s get you going quickly.”

Using Metaphor to Communicate

Speaking customers’ language through metaphor offers a means of communicating with them more deeply. Metaphors can strongly influence how people perceive the value of what a company or brand offers. The right metaphor—which resonates with customers at a subconscious level—can establish a powerful connection with them. It can also convey information that a company never states explicitly.

For example, one study showed that people draw different conclusions about how they should consume a beverage, depending on whether its branding or advertising shows a koala bear or a polar bear. When a beverage is associated with a koala bear, people assume they should consume the beverage warm. But they assume they should consume the beverage cold when it is associated with a polar bear. When a company associated a cold beverage with a koala bear, consumers expressed confusion about how they should consume the beverage.

The right metaphor can be a powerful communication device. On the other hand, the wrong metaphor can result in considerable confusion.

Final Thoughts

One of the biggest challenges in understanding human behavior and decision making is that so much occurs at a subconscious level. Research is increasingly helping us to understand more about how and why people think and behave as they do. Research in the area of embodied cognition offers a powerful and effective way to better understand the drivers behind human judgment and decision making.

There are many ways in which we can leverage the effects of embodied cognition to better inform the work we do. Hopefully, this column will stimulate your thinking about how you can use them in your own work. 


[1] Ackerman, Joshua, Christopher Nocera, and John Bargh. “Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions.” Science Magazine, June 2010, Volume 328. Retrieved July 25, 2011.

Independent Consultant

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Colleen RollerColleen is a skilled writer and an experienced UX researcher who has spent hours watching people use Web sites and other digital tools. She has a deep understanding of what works—and what doesn’t—from a design and content perspective. Whether it’s an online user interface or the written word, she collaborates with her clients and partners to craft solutions that communicate clearly and succinctly. Colleen always welcomes opportunities to use her writing and UX design and research skills.  Read More

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