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The Conection Between Weight and Importance

August 31, 2009

Weighty. Heavy. What do these words have to do with seriousness and importance? Why do we weigh our options, and why does your opinion carry more weight than mine?

New research suggests that we can blame this on gravity. Heavy objects require more energy to move, and they can hurt us more if we move them clumsily. So we learn early on in life to think more and plan more when we’re dealing with heftier things. They require more cognitive effort as well as muscular effort.

This leads to the intriguing possibility that the abstract concept of importance is grounded in our very real experience of weight. Could the various metaphors involving weight derive from our body’s actual struggle with the force of gravity?

In a study appearing in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, University of Amsterdam psychologist Nils Jostmann and his colleagues speculated that actually carrying a heavy weight, rather than a light weight, would make people judge issues as more important in various ways.

In a series of experiments, volunteers held clipboards, some heavy and some light. While doing so, they were asked to fill out a number of questionnaires. In one study, they were asked to estimate the value of various foreign currencies and indeed, the researchers found that those with the heavy clipboard saw the money as more valuable and important.

The researchers also tested the effects of weight on the more abstract idea of justice. Volunteers (still holding their clipboards) were presented with a fictional scenario in which students were deliberately excluded from an important university decision, and were asked how important it was for them to have a voice at the table. Those with the heavier clipboards saw the exclusion of the students as a more important justice issue than did those with a lighter load.

They ran the same experiment a couple different ways, always with the identical result. That is, the actual heft of the clipboard made volunteers think more elaborately and more abstractly about a number of issues. This research adds to the emerging literature on “embodied cognition”- which suggests that the body is crucial for how the mind works.

“Gravitational pull not only shapes people’s bodies and behavior, but influences their very thoughts,” the authors conclude. Jostmann also notes that this can work in the opposite, “misleading people to take lightweight, but in fact important, matters too lightly.”

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