A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the idea of ‘material primes’ as explored in David McRaney’s book ‘You are not so smart’. Chapter 38 of the book, on Embodied Cognition, deals with ‘haptic primes’ which are at least as interesting…
The work on haptic primes can be found in a few papers by John Bargh and his colleagues. In these, they show how holding a warm object can influence people to rate someone as more personable (i.e. as a warmer personality). They carried out experiments where the warm thing was a cup of warm drink and when it was a specially designed warm clipboard. The results came out the same.
Bargh suggests that we unconsciously move from the haptic experience to consonant metaphorical associations. In this case, from warmth as a physical experience to warmth as a metaphor for aspects of personality. In a separate paper, they propose the ‘scaffolded mind’ hypothesis. In this, they suggest that our basic sensori-motor experiences as infants are the foundation upon which all higher level cognition is built. If true, this would justify the move from sensory experience to metaphor and through that to social behaviour. (If you judge someone to be ‘warmer’ then you are likely to respond to them differently.) He also talks about this in a really helpful review of research on ‘automaticity in social-cognitive processes‘.
This suggests, to me at least, that on some unconscious level, we are all poets – which is quite sweet. It also lends further credence to the museum educators’ adage that every session with older people must begin with tea & biscuits. If Bargh is correct then the people holding the cups of tea are more likely to warm to the person leading the session. More broadly, this work suggests that the entire framing of an object handling session matters, from the layout and contents of the room to the way we talk and address the participants. Each of these elements, it would seem, will be provoking unconscious social-cognitive processes & judgements in one ‘direction’ or another. It would make sense to bring these different elements into harmony to optimise the outcome of a session.