Drexel Professor’s Study: Touching Sandpaper Can Increase Charitable Donations

Chen Wang says touching rough surfaces makes people more empathetic to unfamiliar charities — and, thus, more likely to donate.

Drexel - study - sandpaper - Chen Wang

Chen Wang, an assistant professor of marketing at Drexel, co-authored the study.

Charitable organizations who want to raise more money have a secret weapon in their arsenal: Sandpaper.

Really! A new study co-authored by Drexel marketing professor Chen Wang says that touching sandpaper could trigger empathy — making people more likely to donate to charity.

“Our theory is that when you are touching a rough, coarse surface you feel this mild discomfort on your fingers,” Wang tells Philadelphia magazine. “And it triggers something in your brain and you pay more attention to people’s hardships and others’ discomfort … basically, our brain is hardwired to do so many things that we’re not even aware of.”

There were several studies done for the paper. In one, participants held either smooth paper or sandpaper when viewing a series of images. They were found to have more brain activity in the area associated with empathetic responses when touching the sandpaper.

In another, undergraduate students were asked to test hand wash in the guise of a product evaluation. They were given either smooth or rough hand wash, then were asked about their feelings about a foundation that helps sufferers of Sjögren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease where white blood cells attack the exocrine glands. Those who used the rough hand wash were more willing to donate.

“The main hypothesis is if people are touching a rough, coarse surface it will actually enhance their empathy and their donation behaviors,” Wang says. “Also, we found out this is most effective for an unfamiliar charity … with familiar targets, everyone should have great empathy for breast cancer sufferers, for example. But a lesser-known charity could get more empathy this way.”

What’s neat about this study is it has an instant real-world takeaway: Lesser-known charities could print their direct-mail campaigns on rougher paper, or maybe just include a piece of sandpaper with mailings. That sounds silly. But if it gets more money for their cause, who cares?

Wang comes from a family of engineers — many of whom are college professors — and her undergraduate degree from Tsinghua University is in automation engineering. (Her grandfather, an engineering professor, suggested the course of study.) But she took some marketing classes when she got her masters in Industrial & Operations Engineering from the University of Michigan and realized she was fascinated by the field; she got her doctorate in marketing from University of British Columbia in 2014. “I realized I like people more than machines,” she says.

She says she is interested in doing research that has some real-world implications. “I’ve always been interested in doing research that has some social impact,” Wang says. “The topic of charitable donation is one I’m really interested in. A lot of my research interest is about sense and perception — I’m interested in how touch influences consumer behavior, how visual perception and how the lighting in a room can affect consumer behaviors.”

The study appears in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Wang’s co-authors were Rui Zhu of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business and Todd C. Handy of the University of British Columbia.

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