Our Gullible Brains

How our senses influence our thoughts

Rami Niemi

Can a person be bright? Cold? Soft? Sweet? When the psychologists Solomon Asch and Harriet Nerlove posed these questions to a group of 3- and 4-year-olds in 1960, the response, on the whole, was skeptical. “Poor people are cold because they have no clothes,” one child said. By second or third grade, though, children could understand the psychological meanings of these so-called double-function terms and how they relate to the physical world [1].

“Embodied cognition” is a subset of psychological research that explores the way physical sensations can evoke abstract concepts. Take warmth, for example. In one study from 2008, a research assistant asked subjects to hold her cup of coffee (either hot or iced) and then had them fill out a personality-impression questionnaire. Subjects who had held a hot cup judged others to be more caring and generous than did those who had held a cold one [2].

Researchers have also found that weight seems to correspond with perceived significance, giving new credence to the expression a loaded question. Evaluating information on a heavy clipboard has been shown to increase estimates of monetary value [3]. Heavy clipboards also add heft to the résumés of job candidates, according to another study, which further found that subjects who completed a sandpaper-covered puzzle rated subsequent social interactions as more difficult than did those who worked on a nonabrasive version [4]. And bad taste may offend more than the palate: study subjects who drank a bitter herbal tonic made harsher moral judgments about fictional scenarios than those who drank berry punch [5].

The field of social psychology has been criticized for valuing quirky results over methodological rigor, but biological connections do help explain behavior. Researchers have discovered that moral disgust stimulates the same facial muscles that unpleasant tastes do [6]; that activity in the part of the brain that lights up when you touch a rough surface correlates with judgments of harshness in social interactions [7]; and that the insula, which processes both temperature and trustworthiness, appears to be a neural link between physical and interpersonal warmth [8].

If these findings still seem dubious, it’s worth noting that some similar research has been debunked. In 2012, an article in this magazine profiled a University of Pennsylvania researcher who had recently discredited one study that connected higher physical vantage points—the top of an escalator versus the bottom, say—with more-generous behavior. But you might also consider your proximity to salt water—a recent study has found that smelling something fishy (literally, fish) can provoke suspicion [9].

The Studies:

[1] Asch and Nerlove, “The Development of Double Function Terms in Children” (Perspectives in Psychological Theory, 1960)

[2] Williams and Bargh, “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth” (Science, Oct. 2008)

[3] Jostmann et al., “Weight as an Embodiment of Importance” (Psychological Science, Sept. 2009)

[4] Ackerman et al., “Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions” (Science, June 2010)

[5] Eskine et al., “The Bitter Truth About Morality: Virtue, Not Vice, Makes a Bland Beverage Taste Nice” (plos One, July 2012)

[6] Chapman et al., “In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust” (Science, Feb. 2009)

[7] Schaefer et al., “Rough Primes and Rough Conversations: Evidence for a Modality-Specific Basis to Mental Metaphors” (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Oct. 2013)

[8] Kang et al., “Physical Temperature Effects on Trust Behavior: The Role of Insula” (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Sept. 2011)

[9] Lee and Schwarz, “Bidirectionality, Mediation, and Moderation of Metaphorical Effects: The Embodiment of Social Suspicion and Fishy Smells” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Nov. 2012)