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Emotions from touch

June 03, 2019

Touching different types of surfaces may incur certain emotions. This was the conclusion made by the psychologists from the Higher School of Economics in a recent empirical study. Previously, emotional perception was generally studied in relation to visual and audial modalities. The study's results were published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

The researchers looked at how humans react to what they see or hear. This fresh research has helped to create the first ever database of textures, the tangible perception of which is associated with happiness, fear, surprise, disgust, anger, or sadness. Marina Iosifyan and Olga Korolkova invited 108 people aged from 18 to 47 to carry out their analysis. Each of the participants were blindfolded and asked to touch different unknown surfaces one after another with one hand. After touching each of the textures, respondents were asked to rate their association to each texture with six basic emotions on a scale from 0 to 5.

A total of 21 textures were used in the experiment, namely: brick, granite, glass, glass seashells (texturized), plasticine, leather, rabbit fur, metallic kitchen sponge, rubber, velvet, natural silk, polished wood, a spiky acupressure mat, unpolished wooden block, tile, glass pebbles (smooth), sandpaper, polished marble, concrete, toy slime and clay.

After the respondents answered the questions, they took a test to check their alexithymia levels. Alexithymia is a trait related to difficulties in identifying, describing and communicating emotions to others. The higher alexithymia level, the more difficult it is for a person to identify and explain tactile sensations.

The results of the research demonstrated that soft surfaces are generally associated with pleasant emotions, while rough surfaces - with unpleasant feelings. However, this is not always true. For instance, plasticine is soft, but is associated with disgust. And while glass pebbles might be hard, they are actually associated with happiness.

Each of the textures offered to the respondents was usually associated with several emotions. For example, the kitchen sponge was associated fear, disgust, and anger. Furthermore, almost all of surfaces were perceived with a feeling surprise, which the psychologists attributed to the effect of the blindfolds. Moreover, the sound that appears when a person touches the surface may also impact the emotional associations.

The researchers noticed variations in the intensity of the participants' emotions. For example, sadness, if associated with tactile sensations, only rated at 2 out of 5.

People with high levels of alexithymia tended to have more intensive negative emotions. As compared with other respondents, they were highly sensitive to disgust, anger and sadness.

In terms of application, the findings on emotional associations with certain textures can be used in product design and marketing.
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National Research University Higher School of Economics

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