Once again, The Economist reported on another quirky study. In an article entitled Tall dark and stable in the psychology section of its July 14, 2012 edition, the author discusses how “wobbly furniture leads to a desire for emotional stability.”

Evidently, previous studies have shown that if one is given an icy drink at a party, that person will perceive that she is getting the cold shoulder from the other party goers.  Similarly, giving a person a warm drink leads her to perceive a sense of warmth.  Of greater interest, especially in this election year, are studies showing that if potential voters are sitting in chairs leaning slightly to the left, they, somehow, become more amenable to “liberal” or left leaning viewpoints!

The most recent study, which is the topic of this article, has to do with the effect of furniture on a person’s perceptions. David Kille, Amanda Forest and Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo in Canada, had one-half of their volunteers sit in a slightly wobbly chair next to a slightly wobbly table while performing some task. The other one-half of the volunteers sat in non-wobbly chairs next to stable tables.

Those sitting in the wobbly chairs were then asked to judge the stability of the relationships of several celebrities, including President and Mrs. Obama, David and Victoria Beckham, Jay-Z and Beyonce and Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis. Using a scale of one to seven, the volunteers rated how likely the couple would break up within the next five years, in which “1” meant “extremely unlikely to dissolve“.

The researchers found that tinkering with the stability of the furniture effected the volunteer’s perception of stability:

“…[F]eelings of physical instability 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 a 2.5.”

Based on additional tasks given to those in the wobbly chairs, the researchers also found that these individuals “…valued stability in their own relationships more highly.”

This study presents some interesting thoughts in terms of negotiation and mediation. The most obvious is if wobbly furniture is used, the person sitting in it may well perceive her side of the dispute to be less secure than it really is, or, to the contrary, that the other party’s side of the dispute to be less secure than it really is and that her own side is much more stable. Or, it will cause the person to value stability more and so agree to a settlement providing it.

In a more general sense, this study reinforces the notion that our perception of reality and true “reality” are not the same. What we “perceive” to be true, often times, is not!  Our brain can, indeed, play tricks on us, and we are even aware of it.


by Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / phyllis@pgpmediation.com / Website: www.pgpmediation.com