Embodied Cognition and How Objects Influence Our Perceptions

The physical properties of objects we interact with can substantially influence our opinion of unrelated items and people.

Through a number of novel experiments, MIT’s Joshua Ackerman has clearly shown how the texture, weight, and other physical properties of objects we touch affect our judgements and decisions (neatly summarised by Ed Yong):

Weight is linked to importance, so that people carrying heavy objects deem interview candidates as more serious and social problems as more pressing. Texture is linked to difficulty and harshness. Touching rough sandpaper makes social interactions seem more adversarial, while smooth wood makes them seem friendlier. Finally, hardness is associated with rigidity and stability. When sitting on a hard chair, negotiators take tougher stances but if they sit on a soft one instead, they become more flexible.

These influences are not trivial – they can sway how people react in important ways, including how much money they part with, how cooperative they are with strangers, or how they judge an interview candidate. […]

According to Ackerman, these effects happen because our understanding of abstract concepts is deeply rooted in physical experiences. Touch is the first of our senses to develop. In the earliest days of our lives, our ability to feel things like texture and temperature provides a tangible framework that we can use to understand more nebulous notions like importance or personal warmth. Eventually, the two become tied together, so that touching objects can activate the concepts that they are associated with.

Ed Yong goes on to describe how this “embodied cognition” shows direct relationships with the metaphors and idioms of the English language, such as “heavy matters”, the “gravity of the situation”, a “rough day”, “coarse language”, a “hard-hearted” person and “being a rock”.