It’s no accident that the super hero stance – broad, firm and confident – takes up quite a bit of physical space. And no coincidence that Super Man’s posture shares a lot with a CEO’s habit of sitting with hands clasped behind the head and feet up on the desk. Posture, after all, breeds power.
And that understanding could be useful for furniture and office space designers, say researchers who documented the relationship between the space that people take up and the sense of strength they feel. They even exposed how potentially corrupting such expansive “power poses” — and the ensuing sense of confidence and self-importance they can trigger — can be, leading to dishonest behavior.
“Power is like nuclear energy, it can be used for good or bad,” says co-author Andy Yap, who led the investigation while at Columbia Business School and now is a visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “If you’re focused on a goal and you’ll do whatever it takes – you might cheat.”
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His study, “The Ergonomics of Dishonesty: The Effect of Incidental Posture on Stealing, Cheating and Traffic Violations,” involved four experiments to determine how incidental postures could influence the decisions people make — including whether they behaved badly.
Yap, along with Dana Carney, an assistant professor at University of California Berkley’s Haas School of Business, engineered situations in which participants were placed in different postures, and offered a chance to cheat. In one experiment, they asked the volunteers to play a video game that simulated driving while sitting in either small or large chairs and rewarded those who were able to beat the game under a certain time. Players were also told to stop and count to 10 following any crash, and those in larger chairs were more likely to drive recklessly.
In another scenario, the volunteers were told they could earn $4 for stretching in either expansive or confined poses but were surprised with an $8 reward instead. Seventy eight percent of those who adopted the more expansive, power poses accepted the extra money while only 38% who chose the cramped poses kept it.
The study builds on previous research that reveals how posture may influence behavior, including one, also co-authored by Carney, that measured changes in the hormones testosterone and cortisol, which is associated with stress. That study found those who habitually adopted high-power, expansive poses experienced elevations in testosterone, the hormone most often linked to power and confidence, as well as decreases in cortisol (which may have contributed to lower levels of anxiety).
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Posture might even help for those all-important job interviews. A recent study found, for example, that practicing expansive, striking poses before high-stakes settings like interviewing for a job or giving a presentation can improve a person’s performance — while huddling over a desk or hunching over a smartphone may inhibit innovative and confident thinking and increase anxious reactions.
“Your physical posture may have an impact upon how stressed you feel before employment interviews or speaking in front of a group,” says Marla R. Gottschalk, an industrial organization psychologist who specialized in working with businesses on workplace strategies. “So striking a ‘power pose’ shortly before the interview, one where we make ourselves larger, not smaller and closed, is indicated.”
As Carney’s study showed, the relationship works both ways — something that designers, who build furniture and spaces with the intention of not only influencing but optimizing certain behaviors, know very well. So it may make sense to install large, wide-armed chairs in casinos where people might feel bolder and inclined to gamble more, for example, while a manager or CEO might want instead to opt for a smaller boardroom where team members are less likely to take irresponsible risks. On a trading floor, observing the space in which traders work could also reveal how risky their actions might be.
But just because more space may translate to riskier behavior, it doesn’t have to dictate decisions. Awareness of these principles could alter choices regardless of the size of a work space. “If you already work in an expansive environment like an architect at a drafting table, be mindful that our social environment can hijack that,” she says. “We don’t really think about our environment unconsciously pushing and pulling our body into positions that can really have an impact on our behavior.”
So even within the confines of our physical environments, Carney says it’s possible to control our body positions, and, by extension, our attitudes and behaviors. “We can also allow body postures in our environment shape the behavior we want them to,” she says. People often do not consider how the space they take up in a chair can tap into specific emotions and attitudes. Maybe making like a superhero isn’t always so fantastical after all.