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Want to think ‘weightier’ thoughts? Hold something heavy

From what I understand, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been waffling when it comes to making up her mind regarding the various health-care-reform proposals before Congress.Maybe somebody should hand her a heavy object to hold.

From what I understand, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been waffling when it comes to making up her mind regarding the various health-care-reform proposals before Congress.

Maybe somebody should hand her a heavy object to hold. According to a peculiar but fascinating new study in the journal Psychological Science, people who are given a questionnaire about a controversial topic tend to be more decisive with their opinions when the clipboard with the questionnaire is heavy (2.3 pounds) rather than light (1.5 pounds).

That’s right. Apparently, holding a heavy object influences the way we think.

(And yes, dear MinnPost readers, I do believe we could categorize this study under the heading “Huh?” But, hey, it’s still interesting.)

The study, conducted in The Netherlands, is actually a series of four experiments. In each one, 40 to 50 participants were asked to complete questionnaires while holding a clipboard with a storage compartment that was either empty or filled with paper. (Thus the differences in weight.) Participants weren’t told the true nature of the study.

The first experiment found that people holding the heavier clipboard estimated higher (weightier?) values for foreign currencies (100 Japanese yen, 1 Swiss franc) than those holding the lighter one.

For the second experiment, the participants were shown a fictional scenario in which a university committee denied students the opportunity to state their opinions regarding the appropriate size of a grant to study abroad. Those answering questions about the scenario on the heavier clipboard came down harder (with more weight?) on the side of the students (justice?) than did those with the lighter clipboards.

The methodology and results of the third experiment confused me a bit. Participants were asked to rate both the city of Amsterdam and various characteristics of its mayor (likable, intelligent, trustworthy, etc.). The people with the heavier clipboards were more likely to correlate their attitudes toward the city with their attitudes toward the mayor. According to the study’s authors, this meant that “holding a greater weight led to high consistency between two related judgments. This finding is an indication that bodily experiences of weight can lead to more cognitive elaboration.”

Hmm … Not so sure about that.

Anyway, the fourth experiment was the one in which people were asked to weigh pro and con arguments regarding a controversial subway project that was a hot topic in Amsterdam at the time. And, as I indicated earlier, respondents holding the heavier clipboard expressed clearer — and more polarized — opinions. They also had greater confidence in those opinions.

So what does this all mean? Well, it’s certainly fodder for those scientists who are enthusiastically exploring a relatively new approach to thinking of the mind known as embodied cognition — the idea that we think with our bodies (and the interactions of our bodies with the environment) as well as with our brains.

“The experience of weight is an integral part of the abstract conceptualization of importance,” write the study’s authors. “Our findings indicate that the impact of basic bodily experiences, such as weight, is more fundamental than previously suggested. Gravitational pull not only shapes people’s bodies and behavior, but even influences their very thoughts.”

So, maybe next time we hear a politician claim to be “weighing all options” on a topic that seems long past the decision-making stage, we can offer to give him or her a heavy clipboard.

Or an anvil.

For more info:

The full study is not available to everybody online. If you want a much more detailed summary of the study than I’ve provided here, I recommend one of my favorite science blogs, Not Exactly Rocket Science.