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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
Study: Touching sandpaper encourages empathy
New research suggests touching sandpaper inspires empathy. Photo by alessandro guerriero/Shutterstock

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.

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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."

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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.

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

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"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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