Book Review – ‘Sensation’ by Thalma Lobel

In the field of psychology it is evident that humans aren’t entirely rational beings. Now that may not be new to followers of psychology, however what will certainly come as a surprise, if not shock, is that our external environment heavily influence the way we behave. Thalma Lobel the leading psychologist who divides her time between Harvard University, University of California, and Tel Aviv University presents us this novel finding in her book ‘Sensation’.  The book explores a new fascinating understanding of the functioning of the human brain that takes a lot of cue from our senses which might perceive same things placed in different external environments, differently. The sensory perception then drives our behaviours in very different ways than what would be predicted to happen rationally.

Seemingly innocuous things such as hot or cold, clean or dirty, when present in the same frame in which we are engaging have the potential to impact us and make us take decisions which are entirely opposite to each other. The book lays bare that as much as we think we control our behaviour and are responsible for it, there are things beyond us which affect our decision making. Now of course the idea behind the book is to understand how the various external factors influence us and therefore how we can guard ourselves against these effects, but more importantly is there a way to use these factors to influence outcomes that are favourable to us. This new body of knowledge in the field of psychology is now referred to as ‘embodied cognition’.

Temperature of things that we hold in our hands affects the way we behave. A hot temperature invokes in us a very warm, compassionate, and sympathetic behaviour towards others, whereas contact with cold temperature does just the opposite to us. Very similarly, contact with hard things has the affect of bringing out cold and distant behaviour in us than when touching soft things. Now imagine a high pressure negotiation in which the extremely tough negotiator refuses to budge, and the deal looks unlikely. In such a situation offering the person a warm coffee of cup and seating him on a very soft sofa can have the impact of melting him down, without him realizing it, and getting a favourable deal. Now this will surely sound shocking till we step back and think for a while, how many times our own state of mind changes and we cheer up by just a small cup of coffee or tea.

How often do we perceive a thick heavy book on a bookshelf as a highly scholarly work compared to something which is light? It is hard to tell whether the heavy book is really a master work but what is most certainly true is that numerous erudite works have often been produced in just few printed pages. Therefore, it is difficult to judge the quality of a work merely by its weight. However, our mind does perceive that heavy things are more important than lighter ones. Think again in offices, how often a heavy report running in hundreds of pages is more likely to be considered more important than a report having just the key critical analysis, summary, and recommendation all concluded in few pages. This mental bias towards weight is a bit dangerous as it is said that recruiters have often perceived resumes printed on heavy pages as more suitable. Of course now with the age of email this has become a bit redundant, but if one has to send off a printed resume a thicker heavier paper is a better option.

Colours touch us every moment of life and surely all of us have some association with colours and their uses in different contexts. The colour red in particular seems to have a long shared history of important reference in humans. Red is obviously used as the colour to convey a sense of danger, whether that is the ‘Stop’ sign at a traffic signal or the ‘Emergency Exit’ sign in a building. What has been found in the embodied cognition research is probably a validation of what we humans intuitively knew for long. So, the research points out that the colour red creates a sense of anxiety and depresses us to a degree that we tend towards inaction and accept defeat as imminent. In a state in Australia government instructed teachers to stop using red pens to mark students as it was perceived that the colour was affecting students’ psyche, in 2004 Olympics more often the athletes wearing red were able to defeat opponents that weren’t in red – these are all sorts of validation of how our mind processes the red colour.

Height is a very interesting concept especially in the study of power. It is often perceived that people in positions of power are generally tall. Now people can come to power from any spectrum of height in fact height is a non-consequential element in either the ascendency to or sustainability of power. However, what embodied cognition research has come out with is really astonishing. Our perceptions of power are inherently linked with height. Organization charts having a longer vertical line between the manager and the subordinates made people perceive the manager having more power than those where such lines were shorter. This obviously suggests that the sense of height is not absolute and if the perception of height is altered in some way it may affect our association of power level of the person. What better way to alter things than photography. Research has shown how use of clever angle photography can impact our understanding of person’s power level. A photograph taken from a low angle can make the person appear taller and can thereby give the perception that the person is higher up in the power ladder, and not shockingly the opposite holds true as well.

Although the book adds a new understanding of how we get influenced by external environments some flaws remain in the work presented. First, the author often links her personal experience to her results which don’t always seem convincing enough linkages. Second, unlike some of the other heavily research backed works such as those by Daniel Kahneman, this isn’t a work of similar deep research. Now to author’s credit she states that this is an early research work and she hopes more work will be carried out and added to this new field of ‘embodied cognition’. Third, how different cultures will respond to different external settings hasn’t been explored yet. This aspect has the potential to alter some of the assertions made in the book.

To summarize, it is a nice easy to read book which introduces some very stimulating concepts. It gives us a new approach to thinking and perceiving things which can potentially provide us an edge and help us influence others’ actions. Our power lies in understanding the various subtle external influences available to us and using them to gain that edge. In the highly competitive world that we live in, sometimes a small edge is all that we need.


Neil MacGregor

Thalma Lobel
Thalma Lobel is a professor of Psychology at the school of psychological sciences at Tel Aviv University, where she is the director of the child development Center. She was the Chair of the Psychology Department, a member of the executive board, and the Dean of students of Tel Aviv University. She has also been a visiting professor at Harvard and a visiting scholar at Tufts, the University of California San Diego, and New York University.
This book is available in many formats. So go ahead and read it!

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