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 coöperative 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”.