Anyone who has felt guilty—and only psychopaths haven’t—knows what the emotion feels like. It’s heavy. It “weighs on our conscience.” It’s a burden we carry around.
New research published in the journal PLOS One suggests that there’s something to those metaphors. In the study, two researchers, Martin V. Day of Princeton and D. Ramona Bobocel of the University of Waterloo, asked subjects to remember unethical and ethical things they had done. Then they had the subjects say how heavy or light they felt. Specifically they asked them “Compared to your average weight, how much do you feel you weigh right now?” on a scale of 1 to 11. People who were asked to recall past transgressions actually felt heavier than those who recalled an ethical act—or the control group of those who weren’t asked to recall anything at all. The authors argue that the extra perceived weight is the weight of guilt. (All three groups of respondents tended to report feeling heavier than usual, a fact the authors don’t try to explain.)
The idea that something traditionally thought of as metaphorical might be based in an actual perceptual reality is supported by a growing body of research. Other studies have found that the weight of a clipboard holding a questionnaire helps determine how “weighty” the questions on said questionnaire are perceived to be. Beyond weight, a famous study out of John Bargh’s lab at Yale found that holding a hot coffee in one’s hand makes one more likely to judge a person as “warm”, whereas holding an iced coffee makes one think of them as colder; people made to feel ostracized give lower estimates of room temperature than those made to feel included. Then there’s texture: MIT’s Josh Ackerman has found that people asked to put together puzzle pieces covered in sandpaper judged social situations to have gone less smoothly.
This work has its critics, but the Day and Bobocel study is a further piece of evidence that the words we use to describe emotions aren’t just ways of speaking; they’re windows into how, at the most basic level, we process those emotions—using the same senses we use to make sense of the physical world around us. The process works the other way, too: The next time you think you’re getting a bad vibe from someone you’re meeting for the first time, it might just be that your coffee has gone cold, or your chair is too hard.