For a year or so now I’ve been playing with the role of tactility in consulting processes. Well, that’s a good retrospective justification of what I’ve been doing – what I’ve actually been doing is creating and playing with different sets of the Priority Cards.

Nonetheless, it’s become an exercise in understanding the role of touch in how we as humans interact with one another, and I’m finding it fascinating.

I’m not sure I really understand that much yet, to be frank, but there is something about allowing people to have tactile sensory experiences that changes how they interact with the world around them, and with other people.

I’ve not yet found much literature that describes what is going on, but that that I have is remarkable. For example, that the experience of being given a hot or a cold drink to hold can have a dramatic impact on priming how we perceive things around us.

Back in the 1940s, psychologist Solomon Asch created a clever little experiment that explored the impact of sensory input on people’s perceptions of others. It’s described in David Linden’s book Touch:

He recruited subjects—mostly young women during these wartime years—from undergraduate psychology classes at various universities in New York City, such as Brooklyn College and Hunter College. “I shall read to you a number of characteristics that belong to a particular person,” he told one assembled group.

“Please listen to them carefully and try to form an impression of the kind of person described. You will later be asked to write a brief characterization of the person in just a few sentences. I will read the list slowly and will repeat it once: Intelligent … skillful … industrious … cold … determined … practical … cautious.” A second group heard the same list with a single substitution: “cold” was changed to “warm.”

The result?

When the responses were analyzed… it became clear that the warm/ cold distinction was very significant. The person described as warm was more often rated as generous, sociable, and humane, while the cold person was viewed as ungenerous, unsociable, and ruthless.

The warm/cold descriptions didn’t impact on all facets of personality, but it did on many of them.

But what about the hot and cold drinks? In the 2000s, Lawrence Williams and John Bargh recreated Asch’s experiment with a clever twist. The experiment subjects were greeted and then in an elevator journey were asked to hold the experimenters drink. For some subjects the drink was hot, for others the drink was cold.

What happened?

… a brief warm or cold physical experience influenced participants’ subsequent interpersonal judgments of a target person in the same way that presenting the words “warm” or “cold” was found to affect judgments of the target person in Asch’s original study; moreover, participants in the present study showed no awareness of the impact of the physical experience on their judgments

(You can read the full research here.)

A few weeks ago I had a conversation where the idea of creating a digital version of the Priority Cards was raised. On the one hand it felt like a good idea. A digital product is so much more scaleable than a physical one. There was an opportunity for bundling content and building subscription models and gathering data about use and all that good (investable product) type stuff.

But something was nagging at me. Something about the tactility of playing cards that would be lost in translation. And Williams & Bargh’s research has made me realise that having little nuggets of ideas of little bits of glossy card people’s hands is where the interactive value of the Priority Cards lies, not in the content itself. Turning them into an app would be an exercise in converting an interaction into a transaction. It would break them.

Instead, I want to experiment more with tactility. To date, all of the cards I’ve produced have been glossy laminated. Smooth to the touch. What if I make them rough? What happens if I make them heavier? What happens if they are printed on silk? What’s the optimum material and finish to get the best levels of interaction between a group of people who want to explore ideas?

And next time you’re meeting with someone and you want to make a good impression on them, maybe skip offering them iced water. Tea or coffee might make a better choice…

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