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Massage Today
December, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 12

Tactile Sensations Affect Perception, Not Reality

By Rita Woods, LMT

Did you know that holding a warm cup of coffee can foster a sense of trust in another person? Touching is an important part of interacting with our environment and people. Research suggests that touch, including temperature sensations can subconsciously affect our impressions of others, the decisions we make and even our behavior.

New scientific evidence now suggests that what we think and perceive can result from associating concepts we garnered from touch experiences. A recent study,1 supported by the National Institutes of Health, set out to discover whether or not tactile impressions affect what we think and believe. Researchers, Dr. John Bargh (Yale), Dr. Joshua Ackerman (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Christopher Nocera (Harvard), designed a series of experiments to test whether the characteristics of an object can affect our judgment about unrelated things.

Weight, texture and hardness are often used as metaphors. Weight is associated with concepts of seriousness and importance (e.g. a "weighty matter" or "light reading"). And roughness and smoothness are associated with difficulty and harshness (e.g. a "rough day" or "smooth sailing"). Hardness and softness are associated with stability, rigidity and strictness (e.g. "hard-hearted" or "soft on someone"). To test these sensible concepts, the researchers conducted four experiments:

  1. coffee cup - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Researchers recruited people walking along the street and asked them to evaluate a job candidate by reviewing resumes handed to them on either a light or heavy clipboard. Participants holding the heavy clipboard rated the candidates as better overall and more serious about the position. They also rated their own involvement at the task as more important.

  2. In another experiment people were asked to complete a puzzle, with either puzzle pieces covered in rough sandpaper or pieces with smooth surfaces. Then they read a passage describing a social interaction. The participants who had completed the rough puzzle rated the interaction as more difficult and harsh than those who had completed the smooth puzzle.

  3. To test hardness, random passersby were asked to examine either a soft blanket or a hard block of wood. They were then told an ambiguous story about an interaction between a supervisor and an employee. Those who had felt the hard block judged the employee to be more rigid and strict than those who had felt the soft blanket.

  4. Finally, in another test, people engaged in mock haggling over the price of a new car. Some were seated in a soft-cushioned chair and others in a hard chair with no cushion. Those sitting in hard chairs turned out to be less willing to compromise on price than those sitting in soft chairs.

What they found suggests that information acquired through touch creates imperceivable influence over what we think and believe. "Our minds are deeply and organically linked to our bodies," said Bargh. They also found that these tactile experiences can create beliefs that may differ from reality.

The multi-sensory interactions we experience are a natural process that takes place in certain regions of the brain. We unknowingly use several of our senses to discern and learn. For instance, when someone shows you an object that you are not familiar with, you instinctively reach out your hand to grasp it and say, "Can I see that?" This response suggests that investigation involves more than vision, it is rather the sum of seeing, touching, feeling and even manipulating the unfamiliar object.

The Concept of Warmth

New evidence shows that one region of our brain is involved in both our physical and psychological ideas of warmth; warmth, in terms of personality traits, translates to "trust" and "generosity". In a study2 also supported by the National Institutes of Health, researchers looked at the concept of warmth. 

The researchers placed each of the 41 participants in a building lobby. The participant was then met by a woman carrying a cup of coffee, a clipboard and two textbooks. During the elevator ride up, the woman casually asked the participants to hold her cup of coffee while she recorded information on her clipboard. Half of the participants were given a cup of hot coffee and the other half iced coffee.

Once they reached their meeting room, the participants were given a questionnaire about someone who was described as intelligent, skillful, industrious, determined, practical and cautious. They were then asked to rate the person on personality traits related to warm/cold ideas. Those participants holding a warm cup of coffee in their elevator ride perceived the person as "more loving, friendly and having positive characteristics". Those asked to hold the iced coffee were more likely to perceive the same person as "less generous, less sociable and less caring".

So holding something warm did affect the impressions about an individual, but the researchers now wondered if it could affect their behavior as well. So they devised the following experiment:

They asked another group of volunteers to briefly hold either a hot or cold therapeutic pad, telling them it was for a product evaluation. After the participants rated the effectiveness of the pad, they were given a choice of reward for participating. They could choose either a Snapple beverage or an ice cream certificate for themselves or for a friend. Regardless of whether the gift was a Snapple or an ice cream certificate, the participants who held the cold pad were more likely to choose the gift for themselves. Those who held the warm pad, in contrast, were more likely to choose the gift for a friend.

It's interesting to note that holding a cup of hot coffee not only affected the participants' judgement but also made the same participants more likely to buy a gift for someone than if they held iced coffee!

Making Our Impression

As massage therapists, our livelihood comes from touching others. These experiments demonstrate the importance of the quality of our touch. This affects not only the quality of care but the impressions we give our clients about ourselves. By the way, another experiment using poor personal hygiene equates to the belief that the person with poor hygiene habits was lacking in moral integrity.

If you want to be successful in life, it would be wise to consider the unconscious brain. First impressions are likely to be influenced by the tactile environment. In other words, keep your environment, office and home filled with soft chairs that are tranquil in nature. Maintain a comfortable room temperature. Keep warm things and drinks available, especially in the winter. Involve a heavy item when you want someone to take it seriously. And maintain impeccable personal hygiene. This will help them view you as warm, trustworthy, qualified and of high moral character. All of which are important to a successful business.


  1. Wein H. "Touch Affects Impressions, Decisions." National Institutes of Health Research Matters, July 12, 2010.
  2. Wein H. "Warm Hands, Warm Feelings." National Institutes of Health Research Matters, Nov. 3, 2008.

Click here for previous articles by Rita Woods, LMT.


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