Research on “embodiment” (or “embodied cognition”) has exploded in recent years. The idea behind this phenomenon is simple: physical sensations and experiences can have indirect effects on our thoughts and judgments through the mind’s use of metaphor. That is, our thoughts can be unconsciously influenced by our bodily sensations.
Many studies have now documented cases of this. Putting people into certain postures, exposing them to tactile feelings, or getting them to smell something in particular has corresponding effects on their thoughts and emotions.
Here are a few of the mind-body connections that social psychologists have discovered.
1. Powerful body language creates feelings of power
In one study, Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap had some people adopt “power postures” like sitting upright with their chests puffed out. Compared to people who didn’t adopt this posture, the power-posers showed increased testosterone, decreased cortisol, and greater feelings of power.
Adopting powerful postures has also been related to job interview success, behaving dishonestly, and greater tolerance for pain. For more, see Cuddy’s forthcoming book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.
2. Smiling makes the world funnier
Try this: hold a pen in your mouth by putting one end of the pen into your mouth and biting down with your teeth. The pen should be sticking straight out, pointing away from yourself. And don’t let your lips touch the pen! In this position, muscles that are usually active when you smile have been made active.
Now adjust the way you are holding the pen, and rather than using your teeth, keep the pen in place just with your lips. This position shifts muscle activation to muscles usually used to frown.
One famous study asked people to adopt one of the two pen-holding positions I just asked you to try and then showed everyone a comic strip. They found that in the first position (when smiling muscles were being used to hold the pen), people rated the cartoons as funnier than if they were in the second position (where they were using frowning muscles to hold it). The content of the cartoons hadn’t changed—just the bodily sensations associated with smiling or frowning.
3. When the surface feels rocky, so does your relationship
You’ve heard the expression: “our relationship has been a little rocky lately.” There might be more to this metaphor than just metaphor. One recent set of studies got people to feel physically wobbly and then asked them how long they thought their current romantic relationships would last.
They made people feel physically unstable in one of three different ways: sitting at a workstation with two of its table legs shortened by ¼-inch, standing on one leg, or sitting on an inflatable balancing disc. In each case, feeling physically wobbly, compared to people in physically stable conditions, expected their relationships to end much sooner.
4. Nodding your head makes you trust your own thoughts
In a series of studies, Pablo Briñol and Richard Petty found that head movements could affect the confidence people had in their own thoughts. They had people listen to a persuasive speech over headphones, and the speech either made really great points that made people think, “I agree with that!” or it made really weak points that made people think, “Are you kidding?”
These researchers wanted to somehow get people to nod their heads during the speech or shake their heads, but they wanted to do it covertly. So they told everyone that the study was really a consumer test of the headphones they’d be using. To simulate the user experience during physical activity, they were asked to either move their heads up and down as they sampled the headphones or to shake their heads side to side as they sampled the headphones.
This simple body movement affect how persuasive the speech was! When it came to people who heard the really strong version of the speech, the nodding motion led to more persuasion than the shaking motion. It’s as if people were agreeing with their reactions—“I really do agree with that!”
When it came to people who heard the really weak version, though, the nodding motion led to less persuasion. Again, it’s as if they were agreeing with their reactions—“This really is ridiculous!”
5. Holding something heavy makes you treat information more seriously
One study asked people to read a persuasive message on a clipboard. Some people, however, were given a rather heavy clipboard (a body sensation metaphorically associated with effort) whereas others were given a relatively light clipboard. Consistent with the idea that we should treat “heavy” or “weighty” information more seriously, the people who held the heavier clipboard paid much more attention to the message. Those people could tell the difference between strong persuasive argument and a less persuasive one. Those holding the lighter clipboard didn’t pay as much attention, showing less sensitivity to the quality of the message.
6. Holding something warm makes you sensitive to emotional warmth
In a study I cover in the 5 Amazing Psychology Experiments ebook (sign up for the mailing list below to get the free PDF), Lawrence Williams and John Bargh looked at the power of physical warmth to predispose people to view other people as “warmer” in personality. We often refer to people who demonstrate happiness, generosity, and care as “warm,” so these researchers tested whether having just experienced physical warmth would make people more likely to see a stranger as generous, caring, good-natured, etc.
They simply had some participants hold a hot cup of coffee or a cup of iced coffee before participating in a person perception study. The people who had just been holding the warm cup rated a stranger as more generous, caring, etc. than the participants who had just been holding the cold cup. There wasn’t any difference, though, for how much they saw the stranger as attractive, talkative, or other traits that aren’t tied to “warm” personalities
7. Cleaning yourself purifies your moral conscience
In a clever study, Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist asked people to think of a time when they had done something they might consider immoral. Usually, thinking about something like this makes people feel a sense of guilt, and people in the study’s control condition were no different. After thinking about this past event, however, some of the participants were given an antiseptic wipe to wash their hands with (under the guise of “public computer hygiene protocol”).
Compared to the people who didn’t have to wash their hands, those who had the chance to make themselves physically clean didn’t report feeling nearly the same degree of guilt. It is as if washing their hands “washed away their sins” so to speak.
Similar research has shown that watching a disgusting video clip made people cast judgment more harshly on someone else who had committed a moral transgression. The feeling of disgust from the video carried over into how they viewed the other person. If they were given the chance to wash their hands after watching the clip, however, those later moral judgments became less harsh.
8. Moving side to side makes you feel more conflicted
Ambivalence is when you have a mixed opinion. “There are some good things about chocolate cake and some bad things about chocolate cake.” That’s an ambivalent opinion. Oftentimes, that ambivalence translates into feeling conflicted.
One group of researchers figured that if feeling conflicted is a product of wavering between one conclusion and another, maybe physically moving from side to side would also make people feel more conflicted. They recruited participants in a city park and asked them to follow along with a Tai-Chi video. Sometimes the video focused on side-to-side movements, sometimes it focused on up-and-down movements, and sometimes it focused on standing still.
After they did the exercise, they filled out a survey about their opinions on an irrelevant topic. As they predicted, the side-to-side Tai-Chi moves made people express feeling more conflicted about their opinion than the other moves did.
9. The clothes you wear can make you smarter
Other recent developments involve the embodied effects of the clothes we wear. Just as people often offer the advice, “Dress for success,” it seems to be the case that the clothes we wear can affect our mental states. Some research has shown that merely wearing a lab coat caused people to improve their ability to pay attention to information in the environment.
10. Pulling toward yourself leads to liking
Put your hands on the edge of the table and push down. Do you feel how your muscles are engaged in an obvious “pushing away” action? Now flip your hands over and put your fingertips under the edge of the table and pull up slightly. It’s a new set of muscles working this time, and they’re the ones we usually use to bring stuff toward us.
In one classic study, people did one of those two actions (pushing or pulling at a table) as they looked at neutral images (Chinese ideographs). Because we tend to pull things that we like closer to us, and push away things we don’t like, those meanings became associated with the images. The people who were pulling toward them as they looked at the pictures later said they liked those pictures more than the people who were pushing away from themselves as they looked at the very same pictures.
Other research has also shown how these same simple “approach” vs. “avoid” motions can even change opinions to the point of reducing racial prejudice!
So there you have it: 10 ways in which our minds treat physical sensations as metaphorically meaningful.
This research, of course, is not without its critics. Some have had trouble replicating some of the effects and others criticize the very notion that body movements can have an automatic effect on judgments and emotions. Nevertheless, the amount and variety of evidence is compelling, and although we have a long way before we deeply understand these effects, they’re interesting to consider for the moment.