Holding a hard or soft ball can influence a person's perception of how masculine or feminine others are. The finding adds to the growing insight about how connected our sense of touch is to social processing in our brains.
"What you are experiencing every day can influence your thoughts, like if you are sitting on a hard chair or a soft chair," lead researcher Michael Slepian at Tufts University told LiveScience.
In their study, Slepian and his colleagues had subjects clench either a hard ball or a squishy ball in their hands while looking at pictures of faces that had been altered to appear gender-neutral. They then were asked to categorize the faces as either male or female.
When touching the hard ball, volunteers were about 10 percent more likely to categorize a face as male; for those clutching the soft ball, the results were slanted toward females.
In another experiment, a different set of volunteers viewed these faces and were told to either press down hard or press lightly while circling "male" or "female." The researchers reported the same effect: Those told to write hard were more likely to see the faces as male, and the others were more likely to see them as female.
The findings are likely the result of the gender stereotypes people hold, the researchers said: that guys are tough and gals are tender.
Recent studies by others have similarly found connections between our sense of touch and our perceptions of others, the researchers said. For instance, holding a warm cup of coffee makes you more likely to have positive or "warm" feelings toward others. Hand-washing can make people feel cleansed of their sins. Holding something heavy can change our perception of the importance of a topic or object. The connection can even be seen in our language and metaphors: People are often described as "warm" or "tough," words that are grounded to sensory experiences in the physical world.
"Our knowledge isn't stored in our mind the way a computer stores knowledge," Slepian said. "To understand these concepts you need your body. Those sensations are actually part of your knowledge of abstract concepts like masculinity and femininity."
This study was published in the January issue of Psychological Science.