Beware the Interviewer in a Soft Chair

New research says characteristics of objects an individual is touching can influence their thoughts.

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If you'd like your interviewer to think of you as a stable choice for the job, you'd better hope he's sitting in a hard chair. New research indicates that the characteristics of the objects an individual is touching can unconsciously influence their thoughts and perceptions—such as how a hiring manager might perceive a job candidate.

[See 21 tips on getting the job now.]

In a study conducted by professors from MIT, Yale, and Harvard, researchers gave the same resume to a group of participants. Half got the resume on a normal office clipboard, while half were handed the resume on a weighted clipboard. The researchers found that touching a heavier object while reading the resume made the job candidate appear more important to the participants. It seemed also to convey greater seriousness. Rough objects and hard objects also were found to influence perceptions.

The researchers—MIT Sloan assistant marketing professor Joshua Ackerman, Yale psychology professor John Bargh, and Harvard Ph.D candidate Christopher Nocera—conducted a series of six experiments to test how unrelated decision-making would be affected by the fundamental dimensions of touch: weight, texture, hardness. What they found was much more than physical reactions. "The way it's translated in our mind is often through the metaphors we have for the concept," Ackerman says. The metaphors tend to be pretty universal; for example, calling something a "weighty topic" conveys its seriousness and importance. "When we feel physical heaviness, it activates unconsciously the idea that what we're seeing is more serious," Ackerman says.

The interesting thing is that the impressions people form can be so unrelated to the issue being given attention. The clipboard, for one, has absolutely no relationship to the qualifications and experience of the job candidate being evaluated. As for the hard or soft chair, researchers found that when a participant in the experiment was sitting in a hard chair, they were likely to evaluate a job candidate as more stable than participants who sat in a soft chair.

[See how to survive the 'new normal' job market.]

So what implications can this have for job seekers or hiring managers? For one thing, both are already aware of a longtime application effort intended to give the job seeker an advantage: printing a resume and cover letter on heavier paper. It's meant to convey seriousness, even if that's not an entirely conscious motivation. "People don't know why—it just seems like heavier paper is better," Ackerman notes.

The truth is, people have long been convinced that heaviness conveys seriousness, whether it's conscious or not. Think of the big, thick executive desk and the big executive chair. They're not necessarily more efficient, comfortable, or more spacious, but they certainly seem more serious. What's more, "it could be unconsciously making that person feel more important," Ackerman says.

For employers and recruiters, the research implies that it's important to try to standardize the environment in which interviews are conducted. Strangely enough, it seems that keeping the office furniture consistent could help give every candidate an equal shot.