Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Where the body goes, the mind follows

May 9th, 2011

open arms and the cloudsLast week, I wrote about body language and how, under the right circumstances, it can shift our attitudes. But did you know that your own body language can affect your thoughts?

Just like holding a heavy clipboard, it appears that holding a facial expression or physical pose can influence how we perceive and judge the things and people around us.

One of the first studies to show the effects of facial expressions was done by Fritz Strack, Leonard Martin and Sabine Stepper in 1988. They asked their study participants to rate the funniness of cartoons while holding a pen between their teeth (which forces a smile-like expression), between their lips (which blocks the ability to smile) or in their hand. Those holding the pen between their teeth consistently found the cartoons funniest while those holding it between their lips found them least amusing.

In 1993, John Cacioppo, Joseph Priester and Gary Berntson showed that arm positions also affected judgements. While giving their opinions of random Chinese ideographs, the study participants were asked to either press their palms lightly down on a tabletop or press them upward on the underside of the table. Afterward, they were asked to rate the ideographs – and those previously viewed while pushing upward were perceived as more pleasant than those viewed while pushing downward. The researchers believed this was because pushing down uses the same muscles as pushing something away, while pushing up uses the muscles applied while pulling something toward us. Try it yourself.

Head movements also work. Jens Förster asked volunteers to watch the names of various food products move across a large screen before rating how much they liked them. Some of the product names moved up or down the screen (causing a nodding motion in watchers), some moved from one side to the other (causing a head-shaking motion), and some remained still.

Interestingly, the results showed that head motions could make the volunteers’ opinions stronger, but not weaker. Products generally perceived positively (like chocolate bars) got even higher ratings from participants who were nodding, but head shaking had no effect. Meanwhile, negatively perceived products (like lard) were liked even less by those shaking their heads, but nodding had no effect.

So, how can you apply all this? Most people won’t start nodding or smiling or pushing on a table just because you ask them to. (And if they will, you’re already dangerously persuasive and should stop reading right now before you figure out how to rule the world.)

Still, you can make the most of body motions that are already happening. If your audience is looking up and down a long vertical list, draw their attention to positive messages or behaviours you want them to adopt. If they’re watching a tennis match, focus on negative actions to avoid.

And if you want them to think big, have them draw big: a study found that volunteers who had copied a few large squiggles onto a piece of paper made larger estimates of other things, like the length of the Mississippi River or the average temperature in Honolulu, compared with volunteers who had copied small squiggles.

So, please copy the provided squiggles across the side of your house while thinking about how much time you’ll spend changing the world. Excellent.

7 comments on 'Where the body goes, the mind follows'

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  1. Debra

    9 May 11 at 10:12 am

    Geez, we’re pathetic!


    Carol Reply:

    Oh, that’s a little harsh. Let’s just say we’re fallible… and we do a lot of things on autopilot. Think about it. (And move your head up and down.)


  2. Allan McKeown

    9 May 11 at 9:44 pm

    has there really been such a thing as a pure and unadulterated thought produced by my brain during my existence or am I continually the product of the influences that surround me and therefore influence me? Dont need to answer that – I’ll just smile and push upwards and celebrate whatever I “think” about that!


    Carol Reply:

    [laugh!] Maybe if we were raised in a sensory deprivation tank? The thoughts would be pure — but I bet they’d be boring!


  3. Mike

    22 Jul 11 at 12:34 pm

    Barbara Frederickson in her book “Positivity” suggests that, when you want to feel positive, lift your hands, turn the palms upward, and lift your chin upward to look up at the sky. It can lift one’s mood, just as sitting slumped in a chair with your head in your hands can put you in a more downward mood.


    Carol Reply:

    Given the rest of the research, that certainly makes sense. Thanks for the info!


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