Essay: Sensory metaphors

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  • Sensory metaphors
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The abovementioned examples of sensory metaphors show that even subtle, incidental physical experiences can unconsciously affect thoughts about metaphorically related targets. The majority of the conducted sensory metaphor experiments are related to social psychology, a branch of psychology that deals with social interactions, including their origins and their effects on the individual (person to person). It would be interesting to examine whether these sensory metaphors can also be applied to companies or retail stores. In todays stores many (sensory) marketing activities are already being applied: music is played, specific colors and light and sometimes even scents are used. These sensations will create a certain perception of the environment of the store. However, we believe that the perception of a store can be enhanced by making use of sensory metaphors that affect the consumer responses in an unconscious way.
In order to measure the effect of sensory metaphors on consumer responses, some basic but important aspects of marketing communication research on consumer responses will have to be measured. First, we want to examine whether the general attitude of the respondents will be subconsciously influenced by the metaphorical association of sensory metaphors. The ‘general’ part of this ‘general attitude’ variable refers to the general properties of a company that will be measured. Since ‘attitude’ is one of the most popular constructs in marketing communication research, many measurements and scales are available to examine attitudes (Olson, Zanna, & Mark, 1993). Additionally, we want to examine whether consumers can perceive a company or store as more social after being infleunced by sensory metaphors. Therefore, the second dependent variable in this experiment is ‘the consumers’ perception of the company’s social orientation’, abbreviated to ‘company’s social orientation’. The third and last dependent variable for this experiment is ‘consumer purchase intention’, abbreviated to ‘purchase intention’. Purchase intention is a frequently used construct in both consumer behaviour research and marketing research and can be described as an individual’s conscious plan to make an effort to purchase something (Spears & Singh, 2004).
2.5 Manipulating sensory metaphors
In order to measure the effect of sensory metaphors on the dependent variables: ‘the consumers’ general attitude towards the company’, ‘the consumers’ perception of the company’s social orientation’, and ‘consumer purchase intention’, two sensory metaphors regarding warmth and haptics were selected. They were chosen for further research since their power as sensory metaphors was proven by other studies. This paragraph will further explain the power and associations of the selected sensory metaphors within this experiment.
2.5.1 Warmth metaphors
A common used metaphor in daily life is that of warmth and cold as a personality trait. Perceiving someone as warm or cold entails a broad understanding that focuses on a certain degree of socialilty. We describe people as warm when we perceive them as social, good-natured, friendly, helpful and trustworthy, and on the other hand as cold when we perceive them as unsocial, unfriendly, deceitful and unreliable (Rosenberg, S. et al. (1968), fiske cuddy glick, 2008). The power of this metaphor is also demonstrated as a sensory metaphor by Williams and Bargh (2008). Subjects of their experiment briefly held a cup of hot coffee or a cup of iced coffee after which they had to fill in a personality impression questionnaire. As a result, the subjects who held the warm cup of coffee had a higher perceived social warmth in other people than the subjects who held the iced coffee. Another study by Williams and Bargh (2008) concluded that when holding a warm object instead of a colder one, people will behave in a more socially warm and caring way, for example by rather choosing a gift for their friends than for themselves. The subjects who held a cold object were more greedy and in 75% of the cases they chose a gift for themselves.
The abovementioned studies showed that incidental experiences with physical warmth turned into social warmth in a subconscious manner. How could warm objects produce the same affective states as a ‘warm’ person? According to Asch (1946), most abstract concepts in psychology are metaphorically based on concrete physical experiences and the affective responses are stored together in memory. As a result, the feelings of warmth when one holds a hot cup of coffee or takes a warm bath might activate memories of other feelings associated with warmth (trust and comfort), because of earlier experiences with caretakers who provided warmth, shelter, safety, and nourishment. Because of these frequent early life experiences with the trustworthy caregiver, a close mental association usually develops between the concepts of physical warmth and psychological warmth. This research by Asch has revealed that the insular cortex is implicated in processing both the physical and the psychological versions of warmth information. For these theoretical and empirical reasons, we hypothesize that mere tactile experiences of physical warmth should activate concepts or feelings of interpersonal warmth. Moreover, this temporarily increased activation of interpersonal warmth concepts should then influence, in an unintentional manner, judgments of and behavior toward other people without one being aware of this influence.
Cool temperatures increased the desire for social consumption settings. Their findings highlight the bidirectional relationship between physical and social warmth (Bargh & Shalev, 2012) and converge with another study on social warmth that was conducted by Zhong and Leonardelli (2008). They showed that participants experience a room as physically colder after having been socially rejected. Another study reported that consumers perceived the ambient temperature to be cooler when eating alone than when eating with a partner (Lee, Rotman, & Perkins, 2014). Zwebner, Lee, and Goldenberg (2014) studied whether the association of physical and socio-emotional warmth also extends to products. They found that higher ambient temperatures are associated with more positive affective responses and lower perceived distance to the target product, resulting in increased product valuation.
Based on the abovementioned studies and the positive metaphorical associations of warmth, we expect that consumer responses will also be influenced by experiencing physical warmth. Therefore we expect that:
H1a. Holding a warm drink has a significant positive effect on ‘general attitude’.
H1b. Holding a warm drink has a significant positive effect on ‘company’s social orientation’.
H1c. Holding a warm drink has a significant positive effect on ‘purchase intention’
2.5.2 Haptic metaphors
Common touch-related metaphors are also frequently used in daily life, e.g. “it was a rough day”, “thinking about weighty matters” and “she’s my rock”. According to Ackerman, Nocera and Bargh (2010), these metaphors are also powerful as a sensory metaphors. They found that heavy vs. light clipboards made job candidates appear more important. The metaphorical association of heaviness and lightness is ‘importance’, which implicates the heavier, the more important something is (Jostmann, Lakens, Schubert, 2009). Another study by Ackerman et al (2010) found that that touching a rough vs. a smooth object makes social interactions more difficult. They argued that the experience of roughness and smoothness is metaphorically associated with concepts of difficulty and harshness. They also showed that sensory metaphors regarding to hardness and softness subconsciously affect one’s judgment. In daily life, we describe someone as soft when we perceive him or her as vulnerable, emotional, empathetic and sensitive, and we describe someone as hard when we perceive him or her as invulnerable, unemotional, non-empathetic, rigid and insensitive. In the experiment of Ackerman et al. (2010), participants either touched a soft blanket or a hard block of wood. The participants who touched the hard block of wood judged someone as more rigid and strict than participants who touched the soft blanket. Haptic experiences with respect to hardness and softness are metaphorically associated with (cognitive) flexibility, including stability, rigidity and strictness.
The abovementioned studies showed that experiences that are metaphorically related to haptics subconsciously influence social impression and decision making. The question that arises is how such basic haptic experiences concerning weight, texture and hardness, influence our cognitive processing.
According to several scientists (Barsalou (2003), Mandler (1992), sensorimotor experiences are stored in our mind since infancy, which forms a scaffold for the development of conceptual knowledge. This means that touching something hard activates the grounded conceptual knowledge related to hardness. This conceptual knowledge can also be a metaphor, e.g. feeling a rough piece of wood sensitizes us to rough textures and may also trigger metaphorical roughness. Another study by Ackerman et al. (2010) found that sitting on a hard chair increases rigidity in bargaining, and on the other hand, sitting on a soft chair leads to quicker agreement in bargaining. This experiment moved beyond active touch manipulations to investigate whether passive touch experiences can similarly drive embodied cognitive processing. Instead of having participants touch objects with their hands, they primed participants by the seat of their chair. Eighty-six participants sat in either a hard wooden chair or a soft cushioned chair while completing both an impression formation task and a negotiation task. This latter decision-making task had participants imagine shopping for a new car by making an offer to the dealer, being rejected, and having to make a second offer. Depending on the condition, participants were sitting in a hard wooden chair or a soft cushioned chair. As predicted the participants who sat in hard chairs judged the employee to be both more stable and less emotional. Furthermore, hard chairs indeed produced less change in offer price than soft cushioned chairs did. A study by Cherkasskiy, Song, Malahy, & Bargh (2012) proved that courts impose higher punishments to suspects when sitting on a hard chair. Thus, hardness produces perceptions of strictness, rigidity, and stability, reducing change from one’s initial decisions.
Based on the abovementioned studies and the metaphorical associations of hardness and softness, we expect that consumer responses will also be influenced by haptic experiences regarding to hardness and softness. The metaphorical associations with hardness and softness are less related to social concepts (general attitude and company’s social orientation), but we expect that the soft chair condition will still have a positive influence on the general attitude and company’s social orientation compared to the hard chair condition. Since metaphorical associations of softness are much more related to ‘easiness’ and ‘cognitive flexibility’, we expect that the participants on the soft chair will act more easy and flexible, and will therefore have a higher purchase intention than the participants on the hard chair.
We therefore expect that:
H2a. Sitting on a soft chair has a significant positive effect on ‘general attitude’.
H2b. Sitting in a soft chair has a significant positive effect on ‘company’s social orientation’.
H2c. Sitting on a soft chair has a significant positive effect on ‘purchase intention’.
2.5.3 The connection between the variables; (dis)comfort
Both independent variables within this research are linked to each other, because people use both ‘hard’ and ‘cold’ to explain discomfort and ‘soft’ and ‘warm’ to explain comfort. An example of a frequently used statement is: “It is a cold hard world”. This statement clarifies the negative charge of ‘cold’ and ‘hard’ (Melnick, 1999). The reason why we typically pair ‘cold’ with ‘hard’ and ‘warm’ with ‘soft’, is that associations with ‘cold’ and ‘hard’ are neither pleasant nor positive. A ‘warm soft mommy’ is a frequently used association for a caring mother. This example clarifies the pleasant and positive association with ‘warm’ and ‘soft’.
Apart from the two main effects described above, an interaction effect might occur. When combining both independent variables, ‘physical warmth’ and ‘haptic experience’, with the dependent variables, we expect that the most ‘positive’ condition (warm and soft) will lead to the most positive influence on all these variables. We can maintain that, in general, the positively associated conditions (warm and soft) will automatically lead to a higher mean score on all constructs compared to the negatively associated conditions (cold and hard). We expect a positive interaction between the warm and soft condition on all three dependent variables that is significantly higher than the sum of the two main effects. We therefore expect that:
H3a. Holding a warm drink and sitting on a soft chair has a better postive effect on ‘general attitude’.
H3b. Holding a warm drink and sitting on a soft chair have a postive effect on ‘company’s social orientation’.
H3c. Holding a warm drink and sitting on a soft chair have a postive effect on ‘purchase intention’.
2.5.4 Effect size
Apart from the positive and negative associations of the independent variables, we expect a distinction in the subconscious influence between the constructs regarding to their different metaphorical associations. Since warmth and coldness are mostly metaphorically associated with sociality, trustworthiness, helpfulness and friendliness, we expect that the subconscious influence of the temperature of the drink will be dominant over the type of chair for the ‘company’s social orientation’ and ‘general attitude’ constructs. Conversely, because the metaphorical associations with haptic experience are more related to (cognitive) flexibility, stability, rigidity and strictness, we expect that the subconscious influence of the type of chair will be dominant over the temperature of the drink for the ‘purchase intention’ construct. We therefore expect that:
H4a. The warm drink is a larger predictor of the general attitude than the soft chair
H4b. The warm drink is a larger predictor of the companies’ social orientation than the soft chair
H5. The soft chair is a larger predictor of the general attitude than the warm drink
2.6 Connecting the variables: a conceptualized research model
This study aims to identify the subconscious influence of the metaphorical associations of physical warmth and haptic experience on the participants’ ‘general attitude towards a company’, ‘perception of the company’s social orientation’ and ‘purchase intention’. The focus is on whether the manipulated independent variables will result in a different mean score on the dependent variables. Figure 1 provides an overview of the dependent and independent variables for the experiment.

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