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The Rough Road to Greater Empathy

New research finds contact with a coarse surface can put us in a more charitable frame of mind.
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Pearl pink microbeads. (Photo: Melly Kay/Flickr)

Pearl pink microbeads. (Photo: Melly Kay/Flickr)

The fast-approaching holidays are, in theory, a time of year when we focus our attention on the well-being of others. But stress levels have been high of late, and you may not be in the mood to buy presents or donate money to charity.

How can you conquer your inner Scrooge and get into the proper holiday spirit? New research provides an unexpected answer: Run your fingers over a coarse surface.

A trio of researchers from the United States, Canada, and China report that the sensation of physical roughness makes us, at least temporarily, more empathetic toward those in need.

As a result of the "mild discomfort" we feel by touching such a surface, "other discomfort may become more salient, and therefore, individuals are primed to pay enhanced attention to others' misfortune or hardship," the researchers write in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. "(This increased awareness) subsequently results in heightened empathy."

When we experience the sensation of roughness, we care more about people who have it rough.

The researchers, including Chen Wang of Drexel University, provide evidence of this dynamic in five studies. The first featured 228 undergraduates, two-thirds of whom were asked to evaluate one of two hand washes: A smooth one (a moisturizing wash with aloe), or a rough one (containing exfoliating microbeads). The final third, which served as the control group, tried neither.

All participants then read a description of a community health clinic serving people who otherwise could not afford medical care. After doing so, they reported the degree of sympathy and compassion they felt toward the patients, and indicated how likely they were (on a one-to-seven scale) to donate to the non-profit institution.

Those who had tried out the rough hand wash reported higher levels of empathy than those in the other two groups. They were also more likely to donate money to the institution.

Another test featured 49 undergraduates, half of whom evaluated the smooth soap and half the rough one. All were then shown a series of 30 "print advertisement ideas" for three organizations: a children's charity, a children's hospital, and a toy store. After examining them, test subjects were asked to recall as many of the ideas as they could.

Those who had tried the rough soap recalled more of the ads for the charity and the hospital. (Ads for the toy store were remembered equally well by members of both groups.) This suggests the feeling of roughness "enhanced attention to the painful and needy," the researchers write.

A final study featured 134 pedestrians who were approached in the downtown area of a large North American city. Each was handed either a rough or a smooth clipboard; it contained a piece of paper that described one of two charities (one well-known, the other fictitious). After reading the description, they were asked to donate money to the organization.

For the well-known charity, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, about 25 percent of people donated, with no significant difference between those who held the two clipboards. For the unknown charity, however, there was a huge difference, with more than 25 percent of those who touched the rough surface giving money, compared to three percent of those who touched the smooth one.

The results have "important implications for charitable institutions, and particularly those that are less-known," the researchers conclude. Such organizations, they write, "could incorporate a little roughness in their outreach materials," such as "including certain roughly textured material in a direct-mail brochure."

Sounds like a plan worth trying. It seems that, when we experience the sensation of roughness, we care more about people who have it rough.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.