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The New Science of Physical Intelligence

Thalma Lobel

Temperature influences us. Give someone a hot drink to hold and they'll rate the giver as a warmer person than if given a cold drink. "Who would marry us? It's a cold world out there." And we choose a hot drink to cheer us up.

Touching or stroking soft animals or objects reduces blood pressure and anxiety, and makes people softer, less judgemental.

Study where asked to evaluate candidate's CVs. Only difference was weight of clipboard they were attached to. The ones on the heavier clipboard preferred.

Seeing red increases attractiveness of a person to the opposite sex - either background or clothes item.

Students more likely to cheat in darkened room.

Use personal distance depending on what trying to communicate. If want spouse to do something for you, sit close as possible. If you're confessing a sin to your parents, try to distance yourself - a phone call or Skype will reduce the emotional.

People carrying large cup of coffee seen as more powerful. Conversely, if you want to be unassuming, choose a small cup.

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(London Times)

Be honest: if Manchester United were obliged to play an entire season dressed not in the famous red strip, but in, say, pink and yellow polka dots, perhaps with a frilly lace trim around the neckline, do you really think they would perform as well? And if not, why not? They would be exactly the same players, facing exactly the same opponents.

Yet time and time again, a team wearing red will tend to beat a team wearing other colours. Why should this be? Because red is aggressive, proud, successful.

So, in what other ways do data received by our senses affect our performance, our behaviour, our emotions and our thoughts, even those we fondly imagine most rational and objective?

Thalma Lobel, formerly a ­visiting psychology professor at ­Harvard and now the director of the Child Development Centre in Tel Aviv, has written an intriguing, sometimes funny, sometimes rather alarming overview of just how much we are influenced by what our senses tell us. Even our level of altruism, she finds, can be swayed by trivial and unrelated sensations.

In one study, two groups were asked to hold what they were told were therapeutic pads and then give their verdicts. One group was given cold pads, the other warm. Afterwards they could choose either a reward for themselves or a gift for a friend. This bit was the real test; as it turned out, 54% of those given the warm pads chose a gift for a friend, while only 25% of those holding the cold pads did so.

It was a small test sample, Lobel admits (just 41 people), but it has been replicated elsewhere and the same results show up again and again. There are, though, more complex and ambiguous findings. A waitress who touches her ­customers lightly on the shoulder or the arm will get a bigger tip - yet when asked, customers won’t consciously rate her any more highly than one who doesn't do touchy-feely. In another test, students were given two books of identical weights, but told that one was much more important. Sure enough, they estimated its weight as greater. Lobel doesn’t say whether the reverse is also true and heavier books are automatically regarded as more important - although it certainly seems to work with American literary critics.

Utopians, rationalists and optimistic believers in the 'social construction' or infinite malleability of human nature have an awful lot of behavioural hard-wiring to cut through, rooted in aeons of evolution. And after decades of feminism, one result keeps coming up. Shown a number of female faces on a screen, men will always find the ones at the ­bottom the most attractive: submissive, winsomely looking up from below. But you can't just blame the men, because women always rate the men at the top of the screen most attractive: dominant high flyers, very much on top of things. It's all in the metaphors.

As for the colour red, it can also be ­disastrous. If an exam paper has a bright red cover, you will score considerably worse than in the same exam with a white or green cover. Red triggers fear and ­anxiety, and anything that reduces self-confidence reduces performance.

Sunlight, instead, makes us happier; stiff, prickly clothes make us haughtier and less sociable; and - my favourite fact here - we like someone more if we know their favourite food is milk chocolate rather than, say, grapefruit. We think them sweet, childlike and trusting - and we’re not entirely wrong either. Eating milk chocolate does make us (temporarily) kinder and more generous. If we really want to be gentle, happy and kind, we should all wear soft, fleecy, babyish clothing, live in sunny glasshouses and tuck into milk chocolate all day long.

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