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How Your iPhone Weakens Your Will

Want to be assertive in your next meeting? Then put down your device, step away from the touch screen, and fix that posture, says Harvard Business School research.

What are our devices doing to us?

We already know they're snuffing our creativity—but new research suggests they're also stifling our drive.

How so? It's because of the all-too-familiar hunches that smartphones and laptops engender in their users. And if you didn't know, Americans spend 58 minutes a day fussing with their phones, and they're talking on them only 26% of the time.

That poor posture, Harvard Business School researchers Maarten Bos and Amy Cuddy find, undermines our assertiveness.

Their latest experiment—which we'll get to in a moment—is a continuation of Cuddy's earlier research, which has done work to establish that your body posture shapes who you are. In short, the more open and expansive your posture is, the more assertive you'll be—owing to how posture relates to the levels of testosterone and cortisol in your system—while the more hunched, scrunched, and closed you are, the less you'll embody your will.

Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are

The experiment itself was clever stuff:

The researchers paid 75 participants to use one of a range of devices—iPod Touch (a handy iPhone stand-in), iPad, laptop, and desktop—to play the same gambling game. That went on for a while, then the research assistant monitoring them said "I will get some forms ready for you to sign so I can pay you and you can leave. If I am not here in five minutes, please come get me at the front desk."

Unbeknownst to the participants, this was the real experiment: to see how long it would take before they did an assertive action—that is, go find that damn experimenter that wandered away. 94% of the desktop users worked up the nerve to leave the room, while only 50% of the Touch users gave chase.

In a fit of device-behavior parallelism, the larger (and more expansive posture-promoting) the device a person used, the more quickly they sought out the experimenter. As HBS Working Knowledge writer Carmen Nobel notes, desktop users waited 341 seconds before grabbing the experimenter, Touch users waited an average of 493 seconds.

So to put it in a work context, that email you fire off just before a meeting begins may make you more meek once you start paying attention to the conference table actually at hand.

"We won't tell anyone not to interact with those devices just before doing something that requires any kind of assertiveness," Bos tells Working Knowledge. "Mostly because people won't listen: They will do it anyway. But if you realize that, 'hmm, I'm pretty quiet during this meeting,' then maybe you should pay attention to how devices impacted your body posture beforehand."

The takeaway, then, is this: that our bodies continue to exist while we burrow into the familiar discomfort of our inboxes—and consciously or not, our consciousnesses are affected by it.

Hat tip: HBS Working Knowledge

[Neck Pain: Eric Gevaert via Shutterstock]

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  • Rory O'Donnell

    "consciously or not, our consciousnesses are affected" What the what? If individuals didn't consciously notice, how could they be consciously affected? Wouldn't they be UNconsciously or SUBconsciously affected?

  • Angela Tanudjaja

    This is interesting. I think one thing to note is that the article is saying that posture positively correlates to assertive behavior. This assuming that the posture associated with humility, possibly carries a negative connotation, and assuming that assertiveness is a desirable attribute, that it is admirable to be confident and show some forcefulness. 

    It could be that people who are perusing their iPhones are simply disinterested in the context of the meeting and therefore are less likely to be assertive in the first place. What activity is being done on the phone also makes a difference. If somebody is constantly replying to emails/texts/social media, then it could be that they're likely to comply to those around them. If somebody is checking their calendar, they probably are thinking about what to do next. It is true that because our mind and body are connected, what happens to one affects the other. But other variables exist in validating the specific correlation stated by Cuddy. 

  • six7

    Exactly what I was thinking... you'd have to see if they actually fiddled with the devices during those seconds or if they just sat there. 

  • Johnny Quest

    very interesting points brought up, but the experiment had nothing to do with posture...

  • Rome Qs

    Funny, I made this argument in an embodied cognition class.  The professor and my peers scoffed.  Nice to know I'm crazy but empirically sound.