Judging a book by its cover: Prior knowledge determines the effect of embodied cues.

We were also able to replicate these findings in more rigorous replications of the first experiment. In one study, we replicated the basic finding from our first study by measuring knowledge directly, rather than simply assuming that people who read The Catcher in the Rye knew more about it. As before, participants held either a regular or a weighted copy of the novel and rated its importance. This time, we also asked people to answer a number of factual multiple choice questions about it. We found that in general, people rated the heavier book as more important. We also found that this effect was strongest for people who scored average to above average on the knowledge test and non-existent for people who performed poorly. This supports the hypothesis that people need to know something about a target of judgment - as opposed to merely believing that they know something about it – in order for physical weight to influence their judgments of importance.

While this finding supported our initial observation, it was also ultimately correlational. People who read literature and remember it in detail may differ in important ways from people who do not. Perhaps this group was simply smarter or more observant and realized that the books contained concealed weights, or perhaps they differed in some other way. To rule out these concerns, we conducted a third experiment, in which we experimentally manipulated how much knowledge participants had about the target.

All participants were given a book that they were unlikely to be familiar with (Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy). Half of the participants received a regular hardcover copy of the book, and half received an otherwise identical copy with a concealed weight inside it. To experimentally manipulate participants’ knowledge of the book, we gave half of them the book face up, so that they could only see the unfamiliar title and author name. The rest were asked to hold the book back up, so that they could also see a few reasonably informative endorsements (“in exploring what it might be like to be a dog from a human perspective, Dog Boy sheds much light on what it is like to be human”). We found that people who only knew the title of the book were unaffected by its physical weight, but those who had read the additional information on the back of the book were influenced by the physical weight of the book, thinking that the heavier book was more likely to make the New York Times bestseller list, indicating more interesting in reading it, and reporting a willingness to pay more money for the opportunity to read it.

What can be learned from the influence of knowledge

A growing body of research has demonstrated that the thoughts that physical sensations can lead metaphorically related thoughts to come to mind. The fact that these associations exist tells us something interesting about how concepts are stored in the mind. However, when the influence of physical sensations extends beyond thoughts to influence the judgments and decisions people make is also important because it tells us something about how information stemming from bodily sensations is integrated with other information to form opinions about the world. The studies discussed here suggest that while the experience of weight may activate the concept of importance, activation alone is not enough to influence judgment. People must also have some reason to apply this information to a target of judgment for it to have an effect. This could include information about the target itself (e.g. having read the book) orinformation from other contextual cues (e.g. a belief about the kind of book that might be found in a specific place or shared by a specific person) .

It is possible that knowledge influences the metaphorical use of other physical sensations in a similar way. If true, then many of the principles already known to influence semantic priming effects are likely relevant to physical experiences as well. For example, embodied weight cues should not influence targets that are unambiguously important or unimportant on a clearly specified dimension. This would suggest, for example that attitudes toward “environmental regulation” may be influenced by incidental cues, because there is a great deal of latitude in what this might actually include, but that attitudes towards specific and frequently discussed policies – like monitoring the mercury dumped into rivers – may be less susceptible. Further, details like whether people are aware that they physical experience may influence on judgment, whether the physical experience is intense enough to become blatant and thus suspect and the presence of alternative interpretations of a relevant meaning of the physical experience (e.g., that there are plates concealed inside the book) could all undermine their use in metaphorically related judgments. It is also possible that it is too much to assume that all physical experiences influence judgment in the same way, simply because they are experienced through a common sensory channel. If this is the case, then there is much work to be done in understanding how different physical experiences influence thinking and deciding.

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