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Study: Touching sandpaper encourages empathy

"The goal of our work is to make a social impact," said researcher Chen Wang.
By Brooks Hays   |   March 25, 2016 at 12:03 PM

PHILADELPHIA, March 25 (UPI) -- Empathy seems to be in short supply, but scientists may have an answer -- sandpaper.

Understanding or appreciating the pain or plight of someone else isn't always easy. There's an easy way to step into another person's shoes: touch sandpaper.

Researchers found study participants who touched sandpaper in the moments preceding an appeal for charity were more likely to acquiesce.

"We found that when people were experiencing mild discomfort as a result of touching a rough surface, they were more aware of discomfort in their immediate environment," Chen Wang, an assistant marketing professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, explained in a news release. "They could better empathize with individuals who were suffering."

Wang and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments that tested the affects of texture on empathy. In one test, participants either touched an object wrapped in smooth paper or sandpaper prior to viewing a series of painful and neutral images. Brain imaging showed heightened activity in regions associated with empathy when participants touched sandpaper and saw painful imagery.

A second test had participants wash their hands with either a smooth bar of soap or a sandpaper-like exfoliant before filling out a survey measuring their willingness to donate to certain charities. Those who touched the rough soap were more likely to express generosity toward lesser-known causes.

The empathy-boosting powers of sandpaper were diminished when participants were already familiar with a charity.

"Often smaller charities invest a lot of money in advertising to build awareness, but our data suggests that introducing haptic roughness into outreach materials could be an innovative and cost-effective approach," Wang said.

"The goal of our work is to make a social impact," she added. "It's critical to identify novel approaches to meet the massive humanitarian needs in our complex, modern world, and I hope we have done that."

The findings were published this week in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

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