Friday, 15 February 2013

Embodied cognition and cognitive ergonomics: designing for mind and body

There have been a number of experimental studies providing evidence for the weakest (and most trivial, according to Wilson) version of embodied cognition theory, the one stipulating that states of the body can affect our behavior and social judgements (these body states being themselves influenced by factors in the external environment, such as temperature or texture).

The most influential of these studies were conducted by John Bargh and his team. In the coffee cup experiment, they found that participants were more likely to attribute positive character traits to an unknown individual if they were previously holding a warm cup of coffee as opposed to an iced cup of coffee. In an another study, they found that the type of chair participants were sitting on (hard, and cushion-less vs. soft and comfortable) could influence their willingness to compromise in price negotiations. In a related experiment involving the sense of touch and its influence on how we make social judgements, participants were asked to solve a jigsaw puzzle prior to reading and evaluating a passage describing a social interaction. The participants who were given a puzzle containing rough pieces were more likely to perceive the interaction as difficult and adversarial compared to participants who were in the ‘soft puzzle‘ condition. The results of these experiments suggest that basic tactile sensations resulting from our interactions with objects can play an important role in the shaping of higher social cognitive processing.

I was interested to find out about the practical implications of these findings in relation to current trends in design and ergonomics. Indeed, such a view of embodied cognition seems to have captured the attention of designers and could be contributing in a big way to how they conceive and develop new products. According to Seth Snyder, an ‘experience designer’, “This research proves that designers can use a knowledge of embodied cognition to re-investigate and invent new, more successful physical tools and interactions for a variety of applications”.

Thanks to the emergence of embodied cognition, the field of design is seeing a shift from the simple application of principles from traditional ergonomics to an approach based on ‘cognitive ergonomics’. Snyder explains that “designers could perhaps think beyond traditional ergonomics in the sense that we design things that fit the human form, that feel good to hold, to consider “cognitive ergonomics”, designing things that fit the human mind, that feel good to think about, or that make us think “nice” thoughts. Armed with a greater understanding for human inclination to embody emotion with physical metaphor and the ability of physical things to affect human perception and emotion, designers could take on the challenge of cognitive ergonomics. To figure out how to design for the mind, not just the body.”

For Snyder’s full article, click here.

For an interesting paper about the relationship between cognitive ergonomics, embodied cognition and the extended mind, click here.


  1. That's really interesting Rebekah. I don't know why (I've to say it is weird) but the the first thought that comes up in my mind is that according to this idea also the chefs should figure out how to "cook" for the mind, not just the body”...

  2. Whenever I hear about these things I'm forced to question the scale; undoubtably the results of such studies are statisically significant, but are those statistics relevant on the level of human-to-human interaction?

    Consider the coffee example. The study reached its conclusion that "participants were more likely to attribute positive character traits to an unknown individual if they were previously holding a warm cup of coffee as opposed to an iced cup of coffee" using a personality evaluation scale of 1 (cold) to 7 (warm). The data showed that the average rating from the warm coffee group was 4.71 and the average from the cold coffee group was 4.25, a statisically significant difference. Practically however, how significant is that difference? Is the difference of 0.46 on the arbitrary personality warmness scale actually discernable through human interaction? If so, can the results of the study be corroborated, or at least re-examined in a more empirical manner? If not, is such a difference not moot?

  3. I tend to agree with Travis on this, I enjoyed the post and the examples you mentioned really appeal to me, at least intuitively. Leaving the questions of statistical significance aside, how can we assert that this really is embodied cognition that triggers this response and not just a simple example of the power of positive thinking. By this I mean the warm coffee and the soft cushions elicit a positive response from the subject. I wonder are there any studies on negotiations being conducted with alcohol and having much more favourable results? I might look into it and write a post on it as a follow up!

    1. Embodied cognition always reminds me of an experiment performed on men who were asked to rate their attraction to a female on a series of bridges.
      The control group were placed on a sturdy wooden bridge, both wide and safe. The subjects felt at ease typically. However the test group were placed on a less rigid wire bound suspension bridge with "a tendency to tilt, sway and wobble".

      Long story short, the men on the dangerous bridge experienced increased heart rate, dilated pupils and other physical sensations of fear which they mis-attributed as attraction towards the female.

      Embodied manipulation?