Drexel Study: Touching Sandpaper Can Boost Charitable Donations

Organizations are constantly coming up with flashy fundraising campaigns to solicit donations, but a new study by a Drexel University marketing professor shows simply touching sandpaper could trigger empathy and motivate people to donate to charities.

“We found that when people were experiencing mild discomfort as a result of touching a rough surface, they were more aware of discomfort in their immediate environment,” said Chen Wang, PhD, an assistant marketing professor in Drexel’s LeBow College Business. “They could better empathize with individuals who were suffering.”

young woman sanding wall
Touching sandpaper encourages empathy according to a Drexel study.

The findings were published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. In one experiment, the team tested brain activity when participants viewed painful versus neutral images. In some trials the participants held an object wrapped in sandpaper — known as haptic roughness — while they saw the pictures. In other trials they held an object wrapped in smooth paper. The participants showed more brain activity when touching the sandpaper than the smooth paper, particularly when viewing the images.

In another experiment the researchers asked one group of participants to wash their hands with a smooth soap and the other with a rough, exfoliating solution. Then each group filled out questionnaires rating their willingness to donate to a charity. The group that had used the rough hand wash was more willing than the soft soap group to donate to a lesser-known foundation that supports people who suffer from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease in which the white blood cells attack the moisture-producing glands.

However, the researchers found that the texture of the surface doesn’t play a role when donating to well-known charities. Thus, according to Wang, charities trying to build awareness can benefit from the findings of this study and include some rough-textured materials in their mailings and handouts.

“The goal of our work is to make a social impact,” Wang said. “It’s critical to identify novel approaches to meet the massive humanitarian needs in our complex, modern world, and I hope we have done that.”

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