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.

How Your iPhone Weakens Your Will

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.

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]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.