Over the holidays, many people find themselves in a generous state of mind. And now, new research shows that another phenomenon can inspire a charitable attitude as well: running one’s hands over a rough surface.
Researchers in psychology and marketing have discovered that if people touch a coarse surface such as sandpaper, it can actually increase their empathy.
“They are more likely to help other people and they’re more likely to donate to charities afterward,” said Drexel marketing professor Chen Wang, the study’s first author.
She and a team of researchers arrived at the findings by conducting five experiments. In one, they tested a group of students with electrodes to measure how much attention they were paying to painful images, like a picture of a finger being cut by a knife.
The group who registered responses with a device covered in sandpaper paid more attention to the painful images than the group who registered responses with a smooth device.
In another, they had some participants wash their hands with smooth soap, while others used a soap with rough microbeads.
The participants who had touched the rough surface were more likely to donate to a less well-known charity, while those who had used the smooth soap were not.
Wang isn’t sure why this is happening, but she does have a theory that the mild discomfort triggers a reaction.
“Other discomfort or hardship or misfortune in the environment will become more salient, and people will start to pay more attention to those who are suffering,” she said. “And they are more likely to donate to charities who are helping those suffering from this misfortune.”
Based on the findings, Wang recommends that less well-known charities experiment with using rough textures in their direct mail brochures.