"It is the symbolic meaning of a posture," Park says, "rather than the posture itself, that influences the psychological experiences of individuals from different cultures," says Lora Park. (Credit: iStockphoto)

To look powerful, put your hands (not feet) on the desk

Body posture can send powerful signals, but several recent studies suggest that the effect varies based on the type of posture and cultural background.

Researchers conducted four studies with more than 600 men and women born in the US or East Asia (e.g., China, South Korea, Japan) in order to examine the psychological experience of viewing and enacting expansive (versus constricted) body postures.

“Overall, these findings suggest that expansive postures have both universal and culturally specific effects on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior,” says University at Buffalo psychologist Lora E. Park.

“Some postures, such as the expansive-hands-spread-on-desk and expansive-upright-sitting poses, ” she says, “make people across cultures feel more powerful. In contrast, expansive postures that violate cultural norms, such as putting one’s feet on the desk, do not make all individuals feel powerful.”

Park says the expansive postures, which were based on previous research, consisted of:

  • expansive-hands-spread-on-desk pose (i.e., standing up and leaning over on a desk with hands spread apart)
  • expansive-upright-sitting pose (i.e., resting one’s ankle on the opposite leg’s knee with one arm on the armrest and the other hand on the desk)
  • expansive-feet-on-desk pose (i.e., leaning back in one’s chair with feet on top of the desk, hands placed behind one’s head, fingers interlocked, and elbows spread out wide

“In four studies,” she says, “the effect of each posture on participants was evaluated in comparison to a constricted body posture (e.g., sitting with hands under thighs, standing with arms wrapped around one’s body).

Study 1 found that the expansive-feet-on-desk pose, compared to other expansive or constricted postures, was perceived by both Americans and East Asians as the least consistent with East Asian cultural norms of modesty, humility, and restraint.

Studies 2a and 2b found that for both Americans and East Asians, the expansive-hands-spread-on-desk and expansive-upright-sitting poses led to greater feelings of power (e.g., in charge, powerful, dominant, etc.) than those evoked by constricted postures.

Study 3 found that the expansive-feet-on-desk pose led to greater feelings of power and implicit activation of power-related concepts for Americans, but not for East Asians.

Study 4 found that compared to a constricted posture, the expansive feet-on-desk pose led to greater risk-taking among Americans, but not among East Asians. Specifically, after holding the posture for three minutes, American participants were more likely to choose to take action to deal with a problem or situation presented to them, whereas this posture did not have the same effect on East Asian participants.

“It is the symbolic meaning of a posture,” Park says, “rather than the posture itself, that influences the psychological experiences of individuals from different cultures.”

Park’s co-authors include additional researchers from the University at Buffalo and Columbia Business School. The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Source: University at Buffalo

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