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Hard truths, soft seats

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Kathleen Parker
July 7, 2010
— 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 this 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 and weight 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. How we 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 puzzle with pieces that were either smooth or sandpaper rough, after which they read a transcript of a social encounter. Guess who interpreted the interaction as more 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 only with our hands to get a feel for something. Our posteriors are equally receptive to hard-soft messaging. Hence the chair experiment, in which subjects were asked to make offers on a car. The dealer would refuse the first offer, and a second offer immediately followed.


Those sitting on hard chairs made lower second offers than those sitting on softer chairs.


We might extrapolate to our hearts’ content, but it seems wise that those wishing to preserve their virtue in the dating world might avoid the down cushion. And why not make those United Nations chairs a little comfier? Might we 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 our minds than those that float on hard tablets subject to the blinkering lifespan of a battery or extinguishable by a bolt of lightning?


Admit it: You print out the stories you really want to study. Consider, too, how differently we consider a handwritten letter versus an e-mail. Even an e-mail printed out seems more important—more concrete—than what we view on 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, though miraculous 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.


Perhaps what the world needs now is a kinder, softer desk chair.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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