A few years ago I was part of a group that was making a presentation to state health agencies on effective ways to educate the public about air quality. During our last practice session before the real presentation, one of the older, sly presenters brought in three massive bound documents and dropped them with a thud on the lectern. Before we started, I asked him what he was going to do with them. He replied, “You’ll see.”
When it was his turn to present, I did indeed see. Every time he made reference to research backing up his assertions, he lifted one of the documents high enough for the audience to see, and then judiciously dropped it onto the wood surface, just enough for everyone to feel the weight of it. I never asked him if the documents actually contained the research he was mentioning, but it really didn’t matter. The effect was potent.
Having just read a new study in the journal Psychological Science entitled, “Weight as an Embodiment of Importance,” I now better understand why. Over the course of multiple experiments, researchers investigated whether judgments of importance are tied to an experience of weight.
For a bit of theoretical context, consider how many ways in which weight—or facilitators of weight—overtly affect our judgments. In English, we use the term “weighty” to signify something substantial and important. We also use the term “gravitas” to connote seriousness, an elaboration on our understanding of gravity as a force exerting the power of weight over everything around us (and us). We also think of weight as the arbiter of physical strength: the more someone can lift—or looks as if he or she can lift—the more impressive. Weight is even a socioeconomic force, as in the size of someone’s car or SUV. I recall when the Hummer first arrived on the scene, we heard a lot about it being a “six-ton SUV,” as if that specification made it more noteworthy than any other SUV.
In the study, a group of participants were first asked to estimate the value of several foreign currencies while they held a clipboard. Some held a light clipboard, others held a heavy one. As predicted, participants who held the heavy clipboards estimated the value of the currencies significantly higher than those who held light clipboards.
The second study repeated the first, but instead of judging currencies, participants were asked to judge the importance of having a voice in an important decision making process (they were given a scenario involving a crucial decision affecting them being made by a university board). Again, participants holding heavy clipboards judged the importance of having a voice in the decision as more important than those holding light clipboards – a result showing that even something abstract, like making a decision, is tied to experience of weight.
In the final two studies, participants were asked to agree or disagree with arguments of varying strengths. This is a test of cognitive elaboration, one’s tendency to assume and defend a strong position in light of given factors. The results again showed that people holding heavy clipboards assumed stronger, more polarized positions than those holding light clipboards, and made significantly stronger arguments in defense of the positions. Opinions of those with the heavy clipboards were voiced more vituperatively than the others as well.
What makes this series of studies so impressive is that they cut across tangible and intangible variables (currencies vs. decisions, arguments, etc.) and arrived at a quite consistent result: experience of weight affects our thinking, and does so without our noticing. Yet another of the “hidden” but very real forces shaping our thoughts and actions every day of the week.
Jostmann, N., Lakens, D., & Schubert, T. (2009). Weight as an Embodiment of Importance Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02426.x