Business Psychology

Article No. 340
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Do I Have Your Attention?

Research offers advice for business owners.

There are times when it's important to be influential. For example, when you'd like a customer to buy your product, or when you'd like a desirable candidate to accept your offer of employment, or when you'd like your daughter to stop dating a long-haired, unemployed dropout who isn't interested in finding a job. Influence is good. Influence makes life easier, but being influential isn't easy. Customers walk away without your products. Job candidates go to work for your competitors, and undesirable steady boyfriends become no-good sons-in-law.

Business owners want to be influential. They know it's important for them and for their businesses, and so they welcome helpful advice. Annett Schirmer from the National University of Singapore recently conducted research concerning touch that offers such advice.

There are many places you go and things you do where you will not be touched. No one will touch you at the grocery store or a restaurant. No one will touch you when you get gas, buy a doughnut, get coffee, or attend a movie. Indeed, you can go through the whole day and never be touched by another person. But what if you are touched, especially when you aren't expecting it?

Past research has demonstrated that brief touches can have a powerful effect. Shoppers who were touched lightly on the back of the arm as they entered a store stayed longer and spent more money. Diners who were touched lightly on the elbow as they were asked about the quality of their meals gave restaurants higher ratings and left larger tips. Most grocery shoppers who were touched as they sampled a new product in a grocery store liked the product and 71% of the touched females actually bought it! Touch works. But how?

Professor Schirmer is not a business researcher. She is a brain scientist. She strives to understand how the brain works, and she has all the skills, research techniques, and measuring devices brain scientists use to map the movement of electrical impulses through the brain. It's a fantastic wilderness, and the exploration of the workings of the brain is an eager science. The effect of touch on behavior interested Schirmer. She was pretty sure that some interesting findings would emerge if she could observe what was going on inside the brains of people as they were being touched, and she was right.

She began by wrapping up people's heads with electrodes and tape and then inducing the touch effect while her recording instruments were collecting data. She used a no-touch control group to tell her if her strategy worked, and it did. Subjects in her experiment who were touched did behave differently on an assessment task she devised.

Next, she examined her data and mapped out the electrical signals that were generated in her touched subjects and noted where they went. She already knew the locations and functions of many brain structures. Scientists have named these regions and studied them in the past. For example, there is a switching mechanism in the brain that can trigger a motor response without first sending the signal to the portion of the brain where we think and make decisions. Touching a hot stove best illustrates this. The nerve impulse of a hot surface comes up the arm telling the brain that the stove is burning the hand, and the brain commands to arm to jerk away the hand before we have time to think about it. The hand is off the stove, and then we think about our new burn. Schirmer found a similar process at work with touch.

When we are touched lightly when we're not expecting it, the signal is switched instantly to two structures in the brain. One increases attention. The other stimulates cooperation. The signal goes to these two areas first, and it may not go to the area of conscious thought at all. When this happens, people pay greater attention and are inclined to cooperate without ever deciding to do so. It's like salt bringing out the flavor of food. Even sweet cakes have salt in them because the sweetness is enhanced by salt, and we aren't aware of any saltiness in the taste at all. Touch is like salt. It enhances attention and cooperation, and it often bypasses thought processes that might direct a person's attention and cooperation elsewhere. The conclusion is obvious. Touch is a crucial influence technique you need to master and use when you need it.

For example, when you've qualified a prospect and want to close a sale, a light touch on the elbow may give you just the boost you need to complete a transaction. When a desirable job candidate is heading out the door to "think it over," a light touch on the elbow might make all the difference. And although a hard punch to the young man's nose may seem more appropriate, a light touch of concern and affection on your daughter's arm may bring just the attention and cooperation you need that will help her think more clearly about what you say.

Improved influence, and all it takes is a well-timed, light touch on the elbow.

Reference: Schirmer, Annett, Keng Soon Teh, Shuo Wang, Ranjith Vijayakumar, April Ching, Darshini Nithianantham, Nicolas Escoffier, Adrian David Cheok (2011) Squeeze Me, But Don't Tease Me: Human and Mechanical Touch Enhance Visual Attention and Emotion Discrimination. Social Neuroscience, 6(3), 219-230.

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