The more you learn about the brain, the more you realize how wonderfully delusional our brains are. As Anais Nin put it, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Whatever seems real to us may turn out to be a fabrication of our subconscious mind and the senses. How we feel and think about the world influences how we actually see it. Our social perceptions can be shaped by our physical experiences and the attributes of our environment. Here are some intriguing examples from several studies on perception and influence:
- Weight is metaphorically associated with seriousness and importance. Can the weight of an item influence our perception of its importance in real life? Apparently, yes. In one study, job candidates whose resumes were seen on a heavy clipboard were judged as better qualified and more serious about the position.
- In an experiment testing the effects of texture, participants had to arrange rough or smooth puzzle pieces before hearing a story about a social interaction. Those who worked with the rough puzzle were more likely to describe the interaction in the story as uncoordinated and harsh.
- In a test of hardness, subjects handled either a soft blanket or a hard wooden block before being told an ambiguous story about a workplace interaction between a supervisor and an employee. Those who touched the block judged the employee as more rigid and strict.
- In a similar experiment, subjects seated in hard or soft chairs engaged in mock haggling over the price of a new car. Subjects in hard chairs were less flexible, showing less movement between successive offers. They also judged their adversary in the negotiations as more stable and less emotional.
- The difficulty of the task can distort our perception of distance. Researchers have found that hills appear steeper and distances longer when people are fatigued or carrying heavy loads.
- Just holding your body in a certain position can help you remember things faster and more accurately. The subjects were able to remember certain events in their lives faster when they assumed the same positions that their bodies were in when those memories occurred.
- The objects that we want or like appear closer to us than they actually are. For example, participants who had just eaten pretzels perceived a water bottle as significantly closer to them relative to participants who had just drank as much water as they wanted. A $100 bill that participants had the possibility of winning appeared closer than a $100 bill that belonged to the experimenter.
- People in fresh-scented rooms are more likely to engage in charitable behavior. One experiment assessed the subjects’ interest in volunteering for a Habitat for Humanity service project. On a 7-point scale, those amid the fresh scent ranked at a 4.21 interest level, on average, while those in the normal room came in at 3.29. When asked to donate money, 22 percent of the participants in the fresh-smelling room agreed, compared to only 6 percent in the normal room. Follow-up questions found the participants didn’t notice the scent in the room.
- Studies show a link between physical warmth and generosity. Individuals who held a warm beverage viewed a stranger as having warmer personality traits than when holding an iced coffee. In addition to viewing others as more trustworthy and caring, individuals who held a warm object also were more generous with others. It turns out that the insula region of the brain is involved in processing information from both physical temperature and interpersonal warmth, or trust.
- In contrast, social isolation can actually make people feel cold. Researchers asked some subjects to remember a time when they felt socially excluded, such as being rejected from a club, while others recalled memories of being accepted into a group. Afterward, the researchers asked all the participants to estimate the temperature of the room, telling them this task was unrelated to the previous activity and that the building’s maintenance staff simply wanted to know. In general, emotionally chilly memories literally made the subjects feel chillier, even though the room’s temperature remained constant during the experiment. In another study, participants who were made to feel excluded from a game were much more likely to rate higher the appeal of warm food items, such as soup and coffee, than those who had felt socially accepted. They wanted foods that could warm them up.
- People who feel physically clean appear less judgmental. If the jury members washed their hands prior to delivering their verdict, would they judge the crime less harshly? In a series of experiments, students who had washed their hands or read about cleanliness rated certain transgressions to be less wrong compared to the control group. Research also shows the link between disgust and moral judgments.
- People are much more attuned to negative words and can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages. A subliminal message is a signal or message embedded in another medium, designed to pass below the normal limits of the human mind’s perception. These messages are unrecognizable by the conscious mind, but in certain situations can affect the subconscious mind and can negatively or positively influence subsequent thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. In one study, fifty participants were shown a series of words on a computer screen. Each word appeared on-screen for only a fraction of second – at times only a fiftieth of a second, much too fast for the participants to consciously read the word. The words were either positive (e.g. cheerful, flower and peace), negative (e.g. agony, despair and murder) or neutral (e.g. box, ear or kettle). After each word, participants were asked to choose whether the word was neutral or emotional (i.e. positive or negative), and how confident they were of their decision. The researchers found that the participants answered most accurately when responding to negative words – even when they believed they were merely guessing the answer.
Interestingly, our language often reflects the transfer from the physical attribute into the mental construct: “soft cushion” and “soft skills,” “heavy load” and “heavy duty,” “rough edges” and “rough treatment.” If we look at the examples above, we can find many expressions and metaphors that link similar physical experiences and perceptions. For instance, we can give a “cold shoulder” or a “warm welcome.” Our consciousness may be clean, but thoughts – dirty. When you attempted to avert a wrong and it continues anyway, you may state, “I wash my hands of the issue,” indicating that you are clean and not to blame.
According to research led by V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, a region of the brain known as the angular gyrus is at least partly responsible for the human ability to understand metaphors. The angular gyrus is strategically located at the crossroads of areas specialized for processing touch, hearing and vision. The neurobiology of metaphorical thinking may be linked to synesthetic experiences where sensory or cognitive pathways join involuntarily and people may experience letters and numbers in colors, shapes and textures.
Perhaps, we can blame water metaphors for our cash flow problems. Nowadays, we speak of money not in “coin” terms but in “water” terms: liquid assets, slush fund, frozen assets, float a loan, currency, cash flow, capital drain, bailout, underwater mortgages.
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