Soft monkeys and hard chairs

The Independent printed a piece titled 'A hard chair equals a hard heart'. It's an interesting idea that psychologists have found that the texture and feel of objects around us, even those we are sitting on, can affect the way we think and behave.

Given that the office move I am involved in means buying furniture the thought fleetingly crossed my mind that if we insisted easy-going, laissez faire managers can only sit on hard chairs, and driving, hard pushing managers must have soft chairs, the result might be more equitable treatment of employees.

So I read the article playing with this idea, and discovered:

In an experiment in which volunteers engaged in mock haggling over the price of a car, those sitting in hard, cushionless chairs were tougher negotiators than those in soft, comfortable ones.

The Independent article goes on to explain in easy enough to follow language the various experiments done that gave rise to the assertion.

Then, because I like to check the sources of things, I went in search of the research report which I have now ordered from an academic library I belong to. What
struck me as I ordered it was the difference in language between the newspaper article and the research abstract. (A bit of a sidetrack from how we should allocate chairs).

Begin with the titles 'A hard chair equals a hard heart' v. "Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions" which is easier to get to grips with. If I'd only read the research I maybe I wouldn't have got the idea that we could manipulate behavior by chair provision.

But having read the research paper abstract, once I'd waded through the academic jargon I might have got an idea that we could manipulate behavior by the type of clipboards we provide, and the sort of table tops we offer or that union negotiation might run more smoothly if the meeting room tables were covered in velvet cloths. The abstract reads:

Touch is both the first sense to develop and a critical means of information acquisition and environmental manipulation. Physical touch experiences may create an ontological scaffold for the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal conceptual and metaphorical knowledge, as well as a springboard for the application of this knowledge. In six experiments, holding heavy or light clipboards, solving rough or smooth puzzles, and touching hard or soft objects nonconsciously influenced impressions and decisions formed about unrelated people and situations. Among other effects, heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations. Basic tactile sensations are thus shown to influence higher social cognitive processing in dimension-specific and metaphor-specific ways.

Again the Independent article interprets by including speech from the researchers (and did they really say it or is it journalist's licence?)

Dr Bargh said touch was an important sense not only for exploring the world but for shaping our understanding of it, reflected in expressions such as "weighing in with an opinion", "having a rough day" or "taking a hard line".

"These physical experiences not only shape the foundation of our thoughts and perceptions" Dr Bargh said, "but influence our behaviour towards others, sometimes just because we are sitting in a hard instead of a soft chair."

These experiments brought to mind Harlow's experiments on rhesus monkey described in a book Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection by Deborah Blum. One reviewer of the book summarized the research

What Harlow did, in the 1950's, was to separate infant monkeys from their mothers only hours after birth. He then divided the monkeys into two groups: both were to be fed and "raised" by a machine, but in half, the machine was just a wire monkey, and in half the wire monkey was covered with a soft terry cloth and given a face. The results were dramatic. The monkeys with the wire mothers grew up to be psychologically damaged and even physically sickly, whereas those raised by the cloth mothers were healthier in every respect.

So is there enough evidence to suggest that organizational performance and individual behaviour can be manipulated and/or modified by the types of furniture, furnishings, and other tactile surfaces? To my mind it is well worth thinking about in the whole scheme of office space and organizational performance improvement.

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