Saturday, August 29, 2009

Heavy thinking...

In one of the more puzzling cognitive research findings I've run across lately, consider this phenomenon:
Gravity affects not just our bodies and our behaviours, but our very thoughts. That's the fascinating conclusion of a new study which shows that simply holding a heavy object can affect the way we think. A simple heavy clipboard can makes issues seem weightier - when holding one, volunteers think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues.
In a variety of languages, from English to Dutch to Chinese, importance is often described by words pertaining to weight. We speak of 'heavy news, 'weighty matters' and 'light entertainment'. We weigh up the value of evidence, we lend weight to arguments with facts, and our opinions carry weight if we wield influence and authority. These are more than just quirks of language - they reflect real links that our minds make between weight and importance.
Nils Jostmann from the University of Amsterdam demonstrated the link between weight and importance through a quartet of experiments. In each one, a different set of volunteers held a clipboard that either weighed 1.5 pounds or 2.3 pounds.
The extra 0.8 pounds were enough to make volunteers think that a foreign currency was worth more money. Forty volunteers were asked to guess the conversion rates between euros and six other currencies, indicating their estimate by marking a straight line. Those who held the heavier clipboard valued the currencies more generously, even though a separate questionnaire showed that they felt the same about the euro.
Money, of course, does have its own weight, so for his next trick, Jostmann wanted to stay entirely within the abstract realm. He considered justice - an area that is free of weight but hardly free of importance. Jostmann showed 50 volunteers a scenario where a university committee was denying students the opportunity to voice their opinions on a study grant. It was a potentially weighty issue, but more so to the students who held the heavy clipboard. They felt it was more important that the university listened to the students' opinions. [More]
Just as seeing pictures of money can alter our guesses for future corn prices, it would seem what you are holding can tweak your judgment as well. 
One guess for the mechanism is the crossover between physical and mental sensations.
Instead, Jostmann reasons that the link between weight and importance is rooted in our early childhood experiences, when we rapidly learn that heavy objects require more effort to deal with, not just in terms of strength but planning too. Our brain relies on these concrete physical experiences when it represents more abstract concepts, like importance. The two are then joined, so that physical experiences can affect abstract thought.
This is far from the first study that has supported this "theory of embodied cognition". Jostmann's explanation can also account for why thinking clean thoughts can soften moral judgments and why immoral thoughts trigger a need for physical cleanliness. It's why warming our hands can make us socially warmer, why social exclusion literally feels cold. 
The more I follow the research in this area the more I want to turn decision-making over to Aaron.  My mind obviously is running amok.

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