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The Surprising Link Between Your iPhone Use And How Assertive You Are

New research shows that the more you hunch over your smartphone, the less likely you are to stand up for yourself.

[Photo: Flickr user Michele Ursino]

The next time you’re in a public place—a subway train, for example—take a look around, and you’ll find a good number of people sitting in the iHunch, or iPosture, position. Caused by smartphones and other digital devices, the collapsed form, looking downward with an arched back, is a familiar posture in our technological era.

But not only does this posture put massive weight on our necks (about 60 pounds' worth when we bend our necks at a 60-degree angle), it also hurts us in "insidious psychological ways," writes Amy Cuddy recently in the New York Times.

How so? We know from Cuddy’s popular 2012 TED talk that our posture can change our hormones and, in turn, shape the way our brain reflects confidence. When we feel powerful, not only does this feeling expand our minds, it also expands our bodies. In very much the same way that the rest of the animal kingdom make themselves bigger when expressing dominance, humans do the same with nonverbal cues.

Expanding our bodies, or making them bigger, has been a sign of power "closely tied to dominance across the animal kingdom," writes Amy Cuddy in her new book, Presence.

On the other hand, when we’re feeling sad, we tend to shrink our bodies by sitting slouched over, collapsing our shoulders, hanging our head down, and turning our bodies inward. Think about the way people with clinical depression tend to sit. As we shrink our bodies, our thoughts and feelings also take a downward spiral.

In a 2013 preliminary research, Cuddy and her colleague, Maarten W. Bos, found that people were less confident and less likely to stand up for themselves when sitting in the "iHunch" position. In the experiment, 75 students were randomly assigned to interact with four technological devices: an iPod Touch (size equivalent to an iPhone), an iPad, Macbook Pro (laptop), or an iMac desktop computer. After a few minutes of interacting with the devices they were assigned to, the researchers waited to see how long it would take for the experimenters to ask whether they could leave—even after it was evidently clear that the experiment was over. The research concluded that the size of the device greatly impacted whether the participants felt comfortable standing up for themselves, to inquire whether they could leave. The smaller the device—often used in the "iHunch" posture—the less assertive the students were about standing up for their valuable time.

But not only can sitting in this collapsed position affect mood, it can also affect memory.

Erik Peper, a professor at San Francisco State University, says that sitting in these "powerless," collapsed postures is also more likely to trigger negative memories, as this 2014 study found.

"When we are defeated, we tend to collapse," says Peper. "In the same way, when we put our bodies in that position, we evoke the same memories or emotions, just like when you smell a unique smell, and a picture of your grandmother comes back. That is classical conditioning."

Regardless, the next time you’re waiting for a meeting to start, take a look at your colleagues as they come through the door. Most will be looking down at their phones, sending a last email before the meeting starts. They think they’re being productive, but really, they’re taking a big gamble on their future emotional state.

When it comes to working with digital devices, hold your phones up at eye level and talk on the phone through its speakers or through your headphones if this helps you not to look down, advises Peper. Lastly, set reminders to check your posture throughout the day to keep your body from slouching. With all of the depressive emotional processes that a sitting posture can make, sitting up straight should no longer be something to ignore.

Related: Are You Making The Right Impression?