Tall, dark and stable
Wobbly furniture leads to a desire for emotional stability
CLEARLY, a person’s decisions are determined by circumstances. Just how closely they are determined, however, has only recently become apparent. Experiments conducted over the past few years have revealed that giving someone an icy drink at a party leads him to believe he is getting the cold shoulder from fellow guests, that handing over a warm drink gives people a sense of warmth from others, and—most astonishingly—that putting potential voters in chairs which lean slightly to the left causes them to become more agreeable towards policies associated with the left of the political spectrum.
The latest of these studies also looks at the effect of furniture. It suggests that something as trivial as the stability of chairs and tables has an effect on perceptions and desires.
Once in their chairs, participants were asked to judge the stability of the relationships of four celebrity couples: Barack and Michelle Obama, David and Victoria Beckham, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis. They did this by rating how likely they thought it was, on a scale of one to seven, that a couple would break up in the next five years. A score of one meant “extremely unlikely to dissolve”. A score of seven meant “extremely likely to dissolve”.
After they had done this, they were asked to rate their preferences for various traits in a potential romantic partner. Traits on offer included some which a pilot study indicated people associate with a sense of psychological stability (such as being trustworthy or reliable), some that are associated with psychological instability (being spontaneous or adventurous, for example) and some with no real relevance to instability or stability (like being loving or funny). Participants rated the various traits on another one-to-seven scale, with one indicating “not at all desirable” and seven meaning “extremely desirable”.
The results reveal that just as cold drinks lead to perceptions of social conditions being cold, tinkering with feelings of physical stability leads to perceptions of social instability. Participants who sat in wobbly chairs at wobbly tables gave the celebrity couples an average stability score of 3.2 while those whose furniture did not wobble gave them 2.5.
What was particularly intriguing, though, was that those sitting at wonky furniture not only saw instability in the relationships of others but also said that they valued stability in their own relationships more highly. They gave stability-promoting traits in potential romantic partners an average desirability score of 5.0, whereas those whose tables and chairs were stable gave these same traits a score of 4.5. The difference is not huge, but it is statistically significant. Even a small amount of environmental wobbliness seems to promote a desire for an emotional rock to cling to.