Last year I was tickled to write about a cool study showing that, if a person grows up with a language that writes from left to right, then numerical estimates of things like weight or height will, on average, be smaller when a person is imperceptibly and unknowingly leaning to the left.  Seriously, it’s awesomely fun research and you can read about it here.

Today I have the equally fun pleasure of sharing a research study on weight and importance.  It turns out that, when people are holding something heavy, they will report an issue to be more serious, compared to when they are holding something lighter.

Some examples come from a set of studies by psychologist Nils Jostmann and colleagues.

  • In the first study, European participants were asked to guess the value of various foreign currency in euros.  Some were given a heavy clipboard on which to mark their estimates, and others a light clipboard.  Those who held the light clipboard estimated, on average, lesser values.
  • In a second study, subjects were asked to estimate the importance of college students having a voice in a decision-making process involving grants to study abroad.  Participants with the heavy clipboard felt that it was more important for students to have a voice.
  • In a third, subjects were asked to report whether they liked their city after reading a biography of the mayor and indicating how the felt about him.  If they carried the heavy clipboard, there was a relationship between their estimation of the mayor and that of the city, but not if they carried a light clipboard.  In this case, the importance of their feelings about the mayor weighed heavier on their evaluation of the city if the clipboard was heavy.

What is driving these findings?

In English, and several other languages as well, weight is used as metaphor to signify importance.  The authors hypothesized that this abstraction can be triggered by concrete experiences of weight, like holding something heavy.  They call this “embodied cognition.”  Our thinking is affected by the connection between our bodies, their relationship with objects, and metaphors in our minds.

Another nail in the Descartian mind-body dualism coffin.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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