Holding heavy objects makes us see things as more important

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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.

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Jostmann also showed that people are less likely to take matters lightly if they’re holding something heavier. In his third task, he asked 49 recruits to rate the mayor of Amsterdam in terms of his competence, likeability, powerlessness, trustworthiness, intelligence, corruption, importance and charisma. They also had to give their opinion about Amsterdam itself – whether it was a great city and how much they enjoyed being in it. The weight of the clipboards didn’t affect the evaluations of either the mayor or the city. However, the two sets of scores were more strongly correlated among the volunteers who held the heavier board.

Jostmann thinks that the extra weight made people invest that little bit more mental effort in awarding their scores – hence the more consistent rankings across the mayor- and city-based questions. This result, I feel, is a bit more tenuous. Jostmann argues the case that satisfaction with the mayor is an indirect measure of satisfaction with the city, so the two scores should match to some extent. That seems reasonable, but it hasn’t been demonstrated, which makes interpreting the study a bit more difficult.

In the final task, 40 visitors were asked to say whether they agreed with six statements about the construction of a controversial new subway that was big news at the time. The list included three arguments that previous volunteers had deemed as weak (e.g. the building of the subway is a sign of courage to handle large-scale projects) and three arguments that were stronger (e.g. the subway will make the city more accessible).

In all cases, the volunteers agreed more with the strong arguments but especially so if they held the heavier clipboards. This group were also more confident in their opinions and were more likely to be clearly in favour of the subway or against it, rather than dawdling on the fence. Again, the results suggest that under the influence of the weightier board, people make stronger and more polarised judgments, and they do so more confidently.

The effects of the clipboards were small but statistically significant – unlikely to have arisen by chance. The boards didn’t affect the moods of the volunteers, and with a weight of just 2.3 pounds, no one felt that the heavier board was actually burdensome to hold.

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.

Update: Just realised that I’ve been totally scooped by Vaughan at Mind Hacks. Go over there for another take.

An aside: I love academia. The paper says, “Being hit by a heavy object generally has more profound consequences than being hit by a light object.” I will remember this the next time I’m hit by a heavy object. Instead of a primal scream, I will opt for a more dignified, “Lo. I am struck. The consequences are most profound.”

Reference: Jostmann, N., Lakens, D., & Schubert, T. (2009). Weight as an Embodiment of Importance Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02426.x

Image: The Thinker by CJ

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