Sit Up Straighter, Decide Better

Friday’s New York Times touts the health benefits of good posture: it helps avoid the pain (both physical and financial) of back and neck problems, improves muscle tone and breathing, and helps with such important long-term issues like balance (something that deteriorates with age and is related to a host of accidents and injuries). I’d like to add one more observation to the list: posture greatly affects our decision making, often in ways of which we aren’t aware.


Why posture matters for making decision

For one, good posture can help us feel more powerful. A recent study manipulated participants’ poses, having them adopt either the open, shoulder-back posture often associated with power, or the closed, slouched posture often associated with a lack thereof. Posture, it turned out, mattered on multiple levels, including the physiological. Individuals in the open postures had higher levels of testosterone (often associated with risk-taking and dominance) and decreased levels of cortisol (often associated with stress). And, these individuals had higher feelings of power and increased tolerance of risk, suggesting that the physiological changes had some very mental results. Similarly, another study of posture found that erect posture, as opposed to hunched, increased self-confidence and positive self-evaluation.

These results have striking implications for decision making. Power has been shown to enhance cognitive function and increase feelings of wellbeing. Conversely, stress (at least at high levels that pass the “optimal” stress point) is known to hinder the ability to make rational, well thought out choices. So, people who feel more powerful and less stressed may well decide differently—more thoughtfully, more reflectively, from a more positive mindset—than if they were to feel less powerful.

And, experiencing power can greatly affect how we experience other physical sensations that are known to affect both thinking and deciding, such as pain. Another recent study illustrates that people in more powerful, open postures are actually able to tolerate greater levels of pain than those in constricted or even neutral postures – which can only mean good things for making more rational decision. Moreover, even interacting with someone with better posture can increase pain tolerance, and vice versa, an effect which might contribute to people’s preference for associating with powerful individuals: the association might bring actual physical and cognitive benefits (and ditto associating with those whose posture is more constricted – an  interesting tie-in to research that shows how important our friends are to our own physical and mental wellbeing).

The broader picture: our bodies can affect how we feel and how we act

There’s a broader theme here.  How we behave physically has all sorts of influence on our minds. There’s even a prominent area of psychology devoted to the relationship: embodied cognition. The reasoning is that our physical bodies can affect our internal states in myriad ways, most of them below the threshold of conscious awareness. For instance, one famous study found that contracting the zygomaticus major (the “smile” muscle) increases enjoyment. Conversely, frowning can increase sadness and lessen enjoyment of things like funny cartoons. But that’s far from all. To cite just a couple of the numerous examples, tilting your head up increases pride and hunching has been tied to increased depression.

The mindful decision maker would do well to pay closer attention to both his own body language and that of those around him. In so doing, he can harvest those elements that serve to improve the quality and clarity of decisions and consciously alter those that have the opposite effect. So, smile, tilt your head back, and whatever you do, don’t slouch.

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