How the Sense of Touch Can Drive Occupant Decision-Making

In a recent Boston Globe article entitled Researchers Say Sense of Touch Guides Impressions, it was found that the sense of touch really is an important factor when it comes to perception. As you may already infer, we all seem to use an initial impression of something to form a judgment — which, when needed, helps us make a decision. (1) But what factors do we all rely on when we are in the midst of making that decision, and forming a judgment?

Not surprisingly, this is one of the important questions that was asked by the team of researchers headed by Joshua Ackerman of the Sloan School of Management, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where together, his team was trying to find the connection between our bodies and our minds. They did this by using objects with different “weights, textures and harnesses” as they questioned and observed their subjects…”people passing on the street near MIT or Yale”. (1)

Here is a brief review describing three of their studies:

While holding clipboards (where some are heavy and some are light), subjects where asked to review a resumé (resting on the clipboard) and make decisions about whether that particular job applicant was serious about the given position. — Subjects associated heavy clipboards with more serious job applicants. (1) 
While witnessing a “back-and-forth” between two people, subjects were asked whether it was friendly or problematic. — Subjects who had just been working on a puzzle with rough edges saw it as problematic. (1) 
Subjects sitting in hard chairs (versus soft cushioned comfortable chairs) where more rigid in their negotiations over the price of a car. (1)

I think Ackerman said it best as he noted that, “[l]anguage shows the connections we make between physical and mental experiences through metaphors”. (1) What a wonderful picture to paint as the link between not only body and mind is made evident, but the connection between our sense of touch and our ability to make decisions through judgment is made clearer. In short, there are many times we cannot help but default to our sense of touch as we form impressions about the situations which surround us. And as Ackerman notes, this may be due to the fact that our sense of touch is one of the first senses to develop in babies.

Listen To What Your Occupants Say — Metaphorically Speaking

In the end, I think about how important it is to understand this mind-body connection, and the role that our sense of touch has, not only as we navigate through the world, but as architects that hope to improve it through design — like in the understanding of something so seemingly simple, like the hardness or softness of the cushion of a chair.

Just as in Ackerman’s study where job candidates were judged based not only on their resumé, but also on the weight of the clipboard which holds that resume (1), you also should take note as an architect; for those “simple decisions” about materiality can go way beyond texture — you should also consider things like temperature, weight, softness and so on.

Of course, when you stop to think of how many things your occupants will touch during the course of experiencing your building either one time, or everyday, it becomes staggering when you come to the realization that the simple decisions you make really can enhance or detract from a given situation experienced within your building design.

The cupola seen here (in this German government building) is said by some to be a metaphor for the transparency of the German government.. Image Credit: © D_P_R | Flickr

To help you with this, I suggest that you start to listen to your client’s and occupants’ use of language when describing their experiences within your building. Furthermore, listen to the metaphors in their language. For instance, your occupant saying that your “building was cold” or a “room was heavy” might give you some clues that you can link to their behavior (and sense of touch), when within your design.

It is through language that you as an architect can begin to decipher that link between what your occupants physically use and how that informs not only their judgments and decisions within your space, but also reflects back into their overall impression and perception of their entire experience within your building.


(1) Cooney, Elizabeth. Researchers Say Sense of Touch Guides Impressions, Decisions. The Boston Globe. June 25, 2010

Image Credit: © geraintandkim | Flickr




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