Wed, Mar 2, 2011
What would you say if I told you that objects you use every day are now believed to be practicing a form of mind control on you? Sounds crazy, right? Well, although cognitive scientists probably wouldn’t use the term “mind control”, they wouldn’t disagree that while we interact with physical elements of our environment, our brains are performing what’s known as embodied cognition, a sneaky sort of intuition that drives how we feel and behave and is breaking down century-old mind/body link claims with a vengeance.
It may seem incredulous to imagine that the boring coffee mug you held this morning while chatting with your kids, or the clipboard you held while filling out that interview this afternoon, were actively priming your behavior and emotions. How could these static, boring objects change the way you feel and act towards others? Well, fortunately there is a wealth of new research to back up these bizarre claims. While uncovering this research, I couldn’t help but think about how the design of everything from consumer products to education, could be transformed by the notion of embodied cognition. And so I dove into the ever-overlapping worlds of design and cognitive science once more, this time to unearth more about what it could mean to design with embodied cognition in mind, at the very least subconsciously.
Yale University’s John Bargh is among a small but international group leading the charge to understand embodied cognition and its behavioral priming capabilities. Bargh recently co-authored a paper for the journal Science documenting the dramatic power of the sense of touch, when paired with the brain’s abilities to affect how the world is viewed. Bargh’s team found over a series of two studies that subjects:
- who read a passage about an interaction between two people were more likely to characterize it as adversarial if they had first handled rough jigsaw puzzle pieces, compared to smooth ones.
- sitting in hard, cushionless chairs were less willing to compromise in price negotiations than people who sat in soft, comfortable chairs.
- judge other people to be more generous and caring after they had briefly held a warm cup of coffee, rather than a cold drink.
- holding a heavy clipboard while interviewing job applicants took their work more seriously than their interviewing counterparts holding light clipboards.
Considering that none of the subjects in any of the experiments were told they would be tested on how they react to their physical environment, it’s all the more amazing that while their conscious focus was on a very specific task, their subconscious was deciding how they should feel towards literally everything around them, based on literally everything they were interacting with at a given moment, including the jigsaw puzzle pieces, the chairs, the cup of coffee, and the clipboards. An independent Dutch study titled “Weight as an Embodiment of Importance” dives even deeper into the notion of physical characteristics affecting abstract psychological concepts. Focusing on one concept, weight, the study found that people deal with the abstract concept of weight in an analogue way to how they deal with the physical characteristic of weight; they invest more effort.
The study showed that weight, the abstract concept leads to:
•greater elaboration of thought
•greater polarization between judgments of strong versus weak arguments
•greater conﬁdence in one’s opinion
while weight, the physical characteristic, as in physical objects:
•require higher energetic costs to move or pick up
•have a greater impact on people’s bodies
•require more effort, in terms of physical strength and cognitive planning
•cause people carrying weight to judge distances to be greater and hills to be steeper (than those who do not carry the weight or who carry less weight)
A Linguistic Perspective
As groundbreaking (and awesome!) as this research is, it’s worth providing a bit of background in similar thinking, albeit purely linguistic as opposed to physical. In 1980 George Lackoff and Mark Johnson published Metaphors We Live By, a seminal work that suggests that metaphors not only make our thoughts more vivid and interesting but that they actually structure our perceptions and understanding of the world around us:
“The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor. But our conceptual system is not something we are normally aware of. In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act more or less automatically along certain lines. Just what these lines are is by no means obvious. One way to find out is by looking at language. Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like.”
Lackoff and Johnson proposed a new recognition of how profoundly metaphors not only shape our view of life in the present but set up the expectations that determine what life well be for us in the future. While they may have limited their research to the notions of using physical embodiments as metaphorical communication tools, Lackoff and Johnson’s link to current day embodied cognition research is undeniable. In fact, the Dutch study notes that weight is a metaphor for importance in many languages, including English, Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese, and that people:
•‘weigh’ the value of different options before making a decision
•‘add weight’ to place emphasis on important ideas
•judge opinions as ‘carrying weight’ if the source is considered knowledgeable or influential
Lackoff and Johnson discovered that we use embodied metaphors, such as weight, to tie abstract concepts and emotions to physical objects and environments, they just didn’t realize that these very same physical objects and environments are actually driving human perceptions, emotions, and behaviors. Lawrence Williams, who helped design the warm coffee cup experiment with John Bargh says “it’s no coincidence that we use the same word — warmth — to describe both a physical and an emotional experience. Somewhere in the brain, those two sensations are linked,” he says. Williams and the Dutch study both allude to the idea that embodied cognition could be developed early on in life – either starting in the womb (where the child would find love, comfort, and physical warmth), or at least in early childhood development.
Read The Full Article Here: The Reason Why Your Toothbrush Made You Yell At Your Employee This Morning