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May 27
Feeling Touchy: The Intriguing Effects of Textures on Behavior

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 Color Wash, a modular carpet collection by Milliken, sets the ground for a warm, inviting space for collaborative work at the Cisco headquarters in San Francisco.  

Did you know that behavior is influenced by the textures and temperatures of the things with which we surround ourselves? 

When it comes to how we think, behave and interact with other people, we may be effected more than we might assume by our sense of touch.

This idea has been making waves when it recently hit the news in the United Kingdom. Simon Storey and Professor Lance Workman from the University of South Wales presented research which showed that people cooperate significantly more when they’ve been holding hot, as opposed to cold, objects. The researchers asked students to carry out a simple test that depends on collaboration for a successful outcome. Before performing the task, participants were asked to hold either hot or cold objects. The results showed that individuals who held hot objects cooperated significantly more frequently when they had held cold objects.

The implications are clear – if you’re working with somebody, make them a hot drink first! However, on a more serious note, it also proves something we’ve known for a while. Our behavior is affected by our tactile environment – the feel, texture and temperature of our surroundings and the products we use.

That was also the conclusion of a 2010 series of experiments carried out by psychologists from Yale, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Amongst their findings they discovered:

  • An experiment to test the effect of texture asked participants to arrange rough or smooth puzzle pieces before hearing a story about social interaction. Those who worked with the rough puzzle were more likely to describe the interaction in the story as uncoordinated and harsh.

  • A related experiment regarding the feel of materials showed how passive touch can shape interactions. Subjects seated in either hard or soft chairs engaged in mock haggling over the price of a new car. Subjects in hard chairs were less flexible in their dealings with other people and also judged others as less emotional.

  • In another test of hard versus soft materials, subjects were asked to handle either a soft blanket or a hard wooden block before being told an ambiguous story of workplace interaction between a manager and employee. Those who held the block judged the employee as less flexible.

There is something primal in discovering that good design should be about more than what we can see. Our visceral responses to textures, temperatures and other tactile characteristics influence our behavior and the way we see the world, often in ways of which we are unaware.

How do you think the interaction of textures interplays in your everyday work, and how do you incorporate its effect on inhabitants of a space within your design projects? We would love to hear your thoughts on the effect of hard versus soft surfaces.