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Feel Factor

What we touch can change how we think.

illustration of a touch-o-meter

— Ryan Snook

Holding a hot cup of coffee — or a freezing bowl of ice cream — can affect how you interact with people, according to researchers at Yale and the University of Colorado. Our sense of touch, they say, impacts our relationships. "We form impressions based not just on what people say and wear, but on tactile messages," says Josh Ackerman, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who also studies the phenomenon. So hold that warm cup and you're more likely to view others as caring and generous. Sit in a comfy chair (rather than a hard one) and you might be more open to compromise. "Touch," says Ackerman, "is as important as sight and hearing."

Here's a brief rundown of how different physical sensations can affect your perceptions of people — and vice versa.

Soft = receptive, approachable

Touching something soft can make you more open to suggestion; it can also give you the sense that another person is impressionable, the studies found. When 86 study participants sat in either hard or soft chairs and were asked to imagine they were car shopping, those in cushy chairs were more open to bargaining.

Warm = trustworthy

When you're warm, you're more inclined to both trust others and be trustworthy yourself. In one study, participants held either a warm cup of coffee or an iced java and then were introduced to someone and asked to describe their impressions of him or her. The warm coffee holders perceived the person as significantly more trustworthy than those holding the cold coffee did. Other research has shown that heated rooms foster greater social connections than cold rooms do — so be sure to host your next party in a nice toasty room.

Cold = unfriendly, selfish

Giving someone the "cold shoulder" now has a scientific basis: When study participants were asked to choose a gift for either themselves or a friend, those made to feel chilled were 75 percent more likely to give themselves the gift, and those who felt warm were 54 percent more apt to offer it to a friend. If you’re the type that can't say no — to volunteering, work, or social commitments — consider grabbing a cold drink first. It might make you feel less inclined to say yes to something you don't really want to do.

Rough = harsh

Rough textures are associated with friction, researchers found. When study participants completed a puzzle covered in sandpaper, they described subsequent social interactions as more difficult than those who worked on a smooth-feeling puzzle first. So opting for smoother surfaces — say, choosing a leather binder for your next client presentation — could influence the outcome more positively, says Yale researcher John Bargh.

Hard = strict

The expressions "solid as a rock," and "hardhearted" offer a clue about the association between hardness and rigidity. In one study, participants were introduced to someone in the role of employee. Those who were simultaneously holding a hard block judged the employee to be more strict than those who were holding a soft blanket. MIT researcher Ackerman says shoppers should refrain from leaning against hard surfaces like glass counters, which may make you feel less open to negotiating a lower price.

Smooth = easy to get along with, easygoing

When we touch smooth surfaces, we feel a sense of ease (the opposite of what we feel when we touch a rough surface, the study found). Ackerman says this can influence our perceptions not just of people, but of products. For example, a laptop with a glossy case might appear easier to use than one that has a rough case.

Heavy = important

Heaviness connotes seriousness and a sense of importance and status. In one study, passersby on the street evaluated a job candidate by reviewing his resume on either light or heavy clipboards. Those holding the heavier clipboards rated the candidate as showing more interest in the position, as well as being better suited for the job. Ackerman suggests choosing heavier paper when sending out a resume or other business-related correspondence to give the impression that you’re "weighty" and therefore more serious.

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