How SANDPAPER can make you more generous: The feeling of rough surfaces boosts empathy and charitableness
- Asking people to touch a rough surface can make them more empathetic
- Researchers primed study participants and monitored their responses
- Those who held rough surfaces were more willing to donate to charity
- The findings could help smaller charities trying to raise their profile and boost donations, by including rough textures in their mailing materials
Researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia found that asking people to touch a rough surface, such as sandpaper, can make them more empathetic and more likely to donate money.
When it comes to securing donations, rather than opting for charm, charities might be better off taking a more abrasive approach and aim to rub the public the wrong way.
Asking people to touch a rough surface, such as sandpaper, can make them more empathetic and more likely to donate money.
The findings come from a study in which researchers found that feeling mild discomfort from rough surfaces helps people to become more aware of the plight of those in less fortunate circumstances.
‘We found that when people were experiencing mild discomfort as a result of touching a rough surface, they were more aware of discomfort in their immediate environment,’ said Dr Chen Wang, an assistant marketing professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and lead author.
Dr Wang added: ‘They could better empathize with individuals who were suffering.’
Over the course of a number of experiments participants were asked to view either ‘painful’ or ‘neutral’ images while holding an object which either wrapped in rough or smooth paper.
Scans of their brain activity showed a peak in activity with the rough stimulus, compared with the smooth surface.
A separate experiment involved participants washing their hands with rough or smooth soap.
Following this task, people were asked how willing they were to donate to a charity for Sjogren’s syndrome – an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks the glands which produce tears and saliva.
The results showed that those who had used the rough hand soap were more willing to donate to the charity.
However, while this effect was seen for a niche charity, it wasn’t seen for the more mainstream non-profit organisations.
By using psychological priming – where people are exposed to a stimulus, such as a cold object, or a rough surface – the team was able to boost people’s awareness, which opened the door for increase empathy.
The researchers explain that the findings could help smaller charities trying to raise their profile and boost donations, just by including rough materials in their mailing materials.
‘The goal of our work is to make a social impact,’ said Dr Wang.
‘It’s critical to identify novel approaches to meet the massive humanitarian needs in our complex, modern world, and I hope we have done that.’
Writing in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the authors explained: ‘These findings not only underscore the power of subtle contextual cues on shaping important behaviors, but also point to the possibility of developing novel intervention strategies for promoting empathy and pro-sociality.’
The physical priming of people has long been shown to be an effective tool in psychology experiments.
In a famous 2008 experiment, researchers at Yale showed that temperature could be used to prime people’s judgement of others, linking physical and psychological warmth.
After priming participants with rough hand soap, people were asked how willing they were to donate to a charity for Sjogren’s syndrome – an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks the glands which produce tears (stock image) and saliva – and were more willing to donate to the charity
By asking study participants to briefly hold a warm or an iced coffee, experimenters primed their subjects without their knowledge.
In a subsequent trial, those who had been primed with the physical warmth of the coffee judged a target person as having a ‘warmer’ personality than those who had been primed with the cold drink.
A second trial showed that those who had been primed with physical warmth were also more likely to give a gift to a friend rather than keep it for themselves.
While the physical effect is powerful, priming can also be achieved by simple picture and word association.
For instance, simply by displaying images of food items participants are more likely to fill in the blank in ‘so_p’ to make ‘soup’.
But when the same word is displayed surrounded by bathroom items, such as shower gel, a person is primed to think of personal cleaning products, and so will more likely complete the word as ‘soap’.