Hard truths, soft seats
Sometimes it takes a scientific study to reveal the obvious. The latest discovery — that touch influences how we perceive things — is something like the warning on a steaming cup of coffee.
Just as everyone knows that spilling hot liquid on one’s lap will produce a burning sensation, everyone knows that tactile sensations convey information about the object or person being touched. The question is: How do we interpret that information? And what actions might we take in response?
Joshua M. Ackerman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sought to answer those questions through a series of psychological experiments. He concluded that an object’s texture, hardness andweight influence our judgments and decisions.
Again, the obvious: Weight conveys importance (“weighty issues”) and hardness is associated with rigidity. At last we understand the church pew.
Despite the foregoneness of these findings, the implications are significant. Howwe literally feel things can influence everything from our choices when voting to spending money and interacting with others.
In one experiment, for example, Ackerman gave 54 volunteers clipboards with a job applicant’s resume attached. Those holding the heavier clipboards rated the candidate more highly, deducing that the applicant was more serious.
In another experiment, volunteers were asked to complete a puzzlewith pieces thatwere either smooth or sandpaper rough, afterwhich they read a transcript of a social encounter. Guesswho interpreted the interaction asmore adversarial? This rough interpretation also affected subsequent decision-making, with the sandpaper group more inclined toward tough negotiation.
Apparently, we don’t have to touch things onlywith our hands to get a feel for something. Our posteriors are equally receptive to hardsoftmessaging. Hence the chair experiment, in which subjectswere asked tomake offers on a car. The dealerwould refuse the first offer and a second offer immediately followed.
Those sitting on hard chairsmade lower second offers than those sitting on softer chairs.
Wemight extrapolate to our hearts’ content, but it seemswise that thosewishing to preserve their virtue in the datingworldmight avoid the down cushion. Andwhy notmake thoseUnited Nations chairs a little comfier? Mightwe begin exporting Barcaloungers to the Middle East?
Such musings led my meandering mind to the subject of books and other dead-tree reading products in the digital age. I belong to that subgroup of individuals who smell a book before reading. (If you are not a book-smeller, we have nothing further to discuss.)
The tactile experience of reading is also crucially important to my reading pleasure. Holding a book compares to nothing else short of a baby’s contact with his favorite blankie. Consistent with Ackerman’s findings, a hardback is superior to a paperback precisely because it is more solid, weightier and, therefore, more permanent, more important, better.
But might touching words on a printed page versus reading them online also be relevant to one’s comprehension and judgment? Are words consigned to tangible and tactically rewarding paper more likely to register in ourminds than those that float on hard tablets subject to the blinkering life span of a battery or extinguishable by a bolt of lightning? Admit it: You print out the stories you really want to study. Consider, too, howdifferentlywe consider a handwritten letter versus an e-mail. Even an e-mail printed out seemsmore important— more concrete— thanwhatwe viewon the screen. It is, alas, more human.
Part of the pleasure of a real, snail-mail letter isn’t only the effort involved in putting words to parchment, but also the fact of the letter writer having touched the same piece of paper. The exchange involved isn’t only an act of communication, but one of intimacy.
We are all part of this immense digital experiment and we know not where it leads. But the tactile vacuum inherent in the medium can’t be insignificant.
Offhand, it seems that our technologically enhanced communications, thoughmiraculous in terms of speed and access, have become harder and rougher with the medium.
Reaching out and touching someone has become easier than ever, but we never really make contact.
Hunkered over our keyboards, tapping and clicking messages to the vast Other, we have become a universe of lone rangers keeping the company of our own certitude.
Perhapswhat theworld needs nowis a kinder, softer desk chair.