shutterstock_266606648.jpgDan James Shaffer and Seth Goodman co-wrote this post with Hensley Evans.

Imagine that you’re in the market for a new car. After perusing dealerships and comparing several makes and models, you found a perfect match and are ready to negotiate an offer. Sitting across from the salesman in a big, comfy office chair, you finalize the negotiation and smile with delight as he hands you the keys to your shiny new ride. 

Though unrealized at the time, that big, comfy chair may have cost you hundreds of dollars, if not more, due to “embodied cognition.” Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body and sensory environment. In other words, the softer chair made you a softer negotiator. 

Have your doubts? Well, a 2008 study in the journal Science empirically tested this very scenario by manipulating the hardness of participants’ chairs while asking them to negotiate the price of a new car. After all first offers were rejected, participants were asked to make a second offer. Those sitting in hard, wooden chairs raised their offers by only $900 on average, while participants in softer, cushioned chairs increased their offers by more than $1,200. The rigidity of the chair, the researchers concluded, influenced participants’ negotiation tendencies: Hard chairs led to more hard-lined negotiations. 

Importantly, the impact of embodied cognition has been demonstrated across various consumer healthcare settings. In a 2010 study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, participants who touched dental floss when watching a video about flossing, for example, had an increased likelihood of flossing in the future compared with participants watching a video when not touching the floss. In another study, individuals who underwent facial botox injections demonstrated an impaired understanding of others’ emotional expressions, a finding that underscores the vital role of physical facial mimicry in the interpretation of others’ feelings. 


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Given the dramatic rise in iPad use in pharmaceutical sales calls in recent years, research has also shown that interfaces used to access content can be nearly as important as the content itself. For example, research has demonstrated that viewing information through touch-based devices like iPads, rather than through a desktop computer screen, enhance product value perceptions due to higher psychological ownership and endowment for the product. Additionally, participants in an unrelated study who held heavier (versus lighter) clipboards judged unfamiliar currencies to be more valuable, had more satisfaction for their current city, and deemed their city’s mayor as more effective when making judgments. In short, greater weight was unconsciously associated with greater perceived value, which would suggest that having doctors view products on an iPad during sales calls, versus using a lighter paper pamphlet, could also spur higher value perceptions of promoted products.  

Service-oriented organizations are also applying lessons from embodied cognition when designing customer experiences. For instance, when a well-known health provider researched its patient experiences, it discovered that the waiting rooms fostered feelings of vulnerability because the chairs—lined in rows—forced patients to face one another. To diminish these feelings of vulnerability, they divided waiting rooms into modular layouts with seats facing outwards to create a sense of privacy. When patients felt this added privacy, their feelings of safety and well-being also increased. 

Embodied cognition demonstrates that the ways that we think and process information are linked to sensory and physical experiences. Innovative marketers realize that customers are influenced not just by a message, but by the entire environment that the customers are in while receiving the message, and that this is a critical component to understanding consumer and patient journeys. There is still much to discover about embodied cognition and the science that we’ll advance, but in the meantime, beware of the salesmen who offer you big, comfy chairs.


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Topics: Hensley Evans, Seth Goodman, Cognitive Drivers Impact Series, embodied cognition, Dan James Shaffer