I’ve written at various times about embodied cognition – the idea that the body influences the mind. (See here, here, and here.) In other words, our mind is not limited to our brain. We think with our bodies as well. You can improve your confidence by making yourself big. You can brighten your mood by putting a smile on your face. Want to feel morally pure? Take a bath.
How far does this extend? The clothes you wear, for instance, touch your body and mediate between your body and the world around you. It’s fair to ask: do the clothes you wear influence your thinking?
The answer is yes. Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky introduced the term “enclothed cognition” in an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in July 2012. (Click here). They write that enclothed cognition describes, “…the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.” They also suggest that two factors come into play: “the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.”
Many clothes have symbolic value. Take the humble white coat. In a hospital setting, we might assume that someone wearing a white coat is an expert or an authority. We behave differently towards her because of the coat’s symbolism. In other words, the coat affects the perceiver’s cognition and behavior. But does it affect the wearer’s cognition?
Adam and Galinsky conducted three experiments to find out. In the first, they divided randomly selected participants into two groups, one of which wore white lab coats, the other of which did not. The two groups then performed the Stroop test in which the word “blue” is printed in red or the word “green” is printed in yellow. The groups were asked to identify incongruities between the words and colors. The group wearing white lab coats performed about twice as well as the other group.
The second test used three groups. One group wore a white lab coat and believed that it was a doctor’s coat. The second group wore an identical white lab coat but believed that it was painter’s coat. The third group wore normal street clothes. The experimenters asked the three groups to spot discrepancies in a series of illustrations. Those who wore the doctor’s coat found more discrepancies than either of the other two groups. The symbolic value of a doctor’s coat had greater impact on attention than did the painter’s coat.
The third experiment was similar to the second except that some groups didn’t wear the doctor’s or painter’s coat; they merely observed them. Those who donned the doctor’s coat performed best.
The study suggests that the symbolic nature of clothing does indeed affect our cognition. Merely observing the clothes does not trigger the effect (or does so only mildly). Actually wearing the clothes has a meaningful impact on our thinking and behavior.
These studies suggest that our clothes not only affect how others perceive us. They also affect how we perceive ourselves. Even if no one sees us, our clothes influence our cognition. Perhaps, then, we can dress for success, even if we work alone. Similarly, wearing athletic clothes may well improve our chances of getting a good workout. Dressing like a member of the clergy may make us behave more ethically. Dressing like a slob may make us behave like a slob.
There’s one other wrinkle that was brought to my attention – oddly enough – by my spellchecker. When I wrote “enclothed cognition”, the spellchecker consistently converted it to “unclothed cognition”. This raises an interesting question. If clothes affect our cognition in certain ways, does the absence of clothes affect our cognition in other ways? Time for another study.
We live in an individualistic culture and I wonder if that doesn’t bias our understanding of how we behave and think. For instance, we view humans as self-contained and self-sufficient units. There’s a clear boundary between one human and another. Similarly, there’s a clear boundary between each individual and the environment around us. We are separate from each other and from the world.
But what if that’s not the case? What if humans are entangled with each other in much the same way that quantum particles are entangled? Mirror neurons are still somewhat mysterious but what if they allow us to entangle our thoughts with those of other people? Similarly, we’ve learned in the recent past that we think with our bodies as much as our brains. What if our thinking actually extends beyond our bodies and interacts with other thoughts?
Similarly, what if the environment is not separate from us but part of us? What if the environment shapes us much like a river shapes a stone? In a sense, it would mean that we’re not entities but processes. We’re not things but actions. The Buddhists might be right: impermanence is the very essence of our being.
If these things are true, it may give us a key to understanding consciousness. Defining consciousness is known as the “hard problem”. Neuroscientists often phrase the question simply: “What is consciousness?” What if that’s the wrong question? The question implies that consciousness is a thing. It also suggests that consciousness exists somewhere, most likely in the brain. But what if consciousness is not a thing but an action? What if it’s something we do as we interact with the environment? What if we’re swimming in consciousness?
You may have guessed by now that I’ve been reading the works of the philosopher, Alva Noë. (See here and here). Noë studies perception and consciousness and tries to understand how they are entangled. Noë states flatly that, “Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.”
Noë goes on to compare consciousness to a dancer, who is influenced by myriad external factors, including the music, the dance floor, and her partner. Dancing is not within the dancer. Noë writes that, “The idea that the dance is a state of us, inside of us, or something that happens in us is crazy. Our ability to dance depends on all kinds of things going on inside of us, but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us.” Similarly, Noë suggests, consciousness is not within us, rather it is “…a way of being part of a larger process.”
Noë similarly argues that consciousness is not located in a given place. The analogy is life itself. If we look at other people, we can tell that they’re alive. But where is life located in them? We quickly realize that we don’t think of life as a thing that is located in a certain place. Life is not a thing but a dynamic. Noë argues that the same is true of consciousness.
Noë also suggests that cognitive scientists are pursuing the wrong analogy – the computer. This “distinctively nonbiological approach” converts consciousness into a mere computational function that is “…very much divorced from the active life of the animal.” The active life – and engagement with the world around us – creates consciousness in a way that a “brain in a vat” could never do.
What’s it all mean? We’re looking for consciousness in all the wrong places. As Noë concludes, “…the idea that you are your brain or that the brain alone is sufficient for consciousness is really just a mantra, and … there is no reason to believe it.”
Suellen and I went to the Tattered Cover bookstore (a Denver icon) last night to hear Amy Cuddy speak about her new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self To Your Biggest Challenges.
I’ve written about Cuddy before (here, here, and here) and use some of her work in my Critical Thinking class. We all have a general understanding of how the mind affects the body. Cuddy asks us to consider the reverse – how does the body affect the mind? Cuddy points out that the way we carry ourselves – our posture and body language – can affect our mood, thoughts, and performance. She introduces the topic quite well in her famous TED talk – the second most watched TED talk ever.
Cuddy writes that our posture affects our power over ourselves (as opposed to power over other people). When we adopt an expansive posture – making ourselves big – our power to manage ourselves and perform optimally increases. When we adopt a drawn-in posture – making ourselves small – we give away power over our own performance.
Cuddy is a fascinating speaker – her body language definitely reinforces here spoken language. I recommend the book. Just remember that were you stand depends on how you stand.
We know that smart phones are bad for your posture. And we know that posture has a strong influence on mood, attitude, and performance. So, could smart phones be undermining your mood and deflating your performance? Of course they could.
Let’s review what we know about two key ideas:
Smart phones and posture – we know that people tilt their heads forward to read their smart phones. The trendy term for this is iHunch. Anatomists more frequently refer to it as forward head posture in which the ear is “…forward of the shoulder rather than sitting directly over it.” As the authors at What’s Your Posture note, it’s like hanging a bowling ball around your neck and reduces lung capacity by as much as 30%. It’s also associated with “headaches, abnormal functions of the eyes and ears, and psychological and mental disorders.” Yikes!
Posture and performance – the concept of embodied cognition suggests that we think with our bodies as much as our minds. If we smile, our mood will improve. If we stand up straight, our confidence will improve. If we support an idea, we’ll stand up for it. If we want to help someone, we’ll bend over backwards for them. In very literal ways, our posture affects our mood and performance.
As Amy Cuddy pointed out in her popular TED talk, if we adopt a high-power pose for two minutes, our levels of testosterone increase and levels of cortisol decrease. The effect is to increase dominance and reduce stress. We’re more confident and our performance improves.
On the other hand, if we hold a low-power pose for two minutes, testosterone falls and cortisol rises. We’re more stressed and less confident. Our performance suffers.
What does a low-power pose look like? Well, … it looks a lot like the posture we adopt when we look at our smart phones. In a low-power pose, we make ourselves smaller. We draw ourselves in. We take up less space rather than more. In a smart phone posture we’re essentially doing all of those things at once.
As Cuddy pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times, “When we’re sad, we slouch. We also slouch when we feel scared or powerless. Studies have shown that people with clinical depression adopt a posture that eerily resembles the iHunch.” By slouching over our phones, we’re making ourselves sad, fearful, and depressed.
When we look at our smart phones, we absorb new information. That information could be positive or negative. The posture we use, however, increases our stress and reduces our confidence. That tends to undermine the positive news and accentuate the negative news. We stress ourselves through our postures as much as our news sources.
What to do? As my father (a good military man) frequently reminded me, “Stand up straight. Look sharp, be sharp”. As it turns out, Dad was right. Oh… and breathe deeply, hold your head up, and take up more space rather than less. You feel better already, don’t you?
Have we got it backwards yet again? I used to think that I did favors for people because I liked them. The liking comes first; the favor comes second. The liking causes the favor.
But wait. Like so many other things, I may have got it backwards. Perhaps cause-and-effect flows the other way. Perhaps the fact that I do you a favor causes me to like you. Perhaps you can induce me to like you by asking me for a favor.
In the world of persuasion, this is known as the Benjamin Franklin effect. Old Ben may not have been the first to notice the effect, but he wrote a pithy quote to popularize it: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he who you yourself have obliged.”
Franklin tells the story of an unnamed political opponent – rich and well connected – who attacked Franklin mercilessly in an election. Franklin won the election and wanted to win his opponent over. So he asked to borrow a book from his competitor’s library. Franklin kept it for a week and then returned it with a thoughtful and appreciative note. Thus began a long-lasting friendship. (David McRaney tells the story in full here.)
The Ben Franklin effect is not so different from the concept of the plastic brain. Through our actions, we create our brain rather than vice-versa. (See Norman Doidge’s writings here and here). What we do creates the brain rather than the brain creating what we do. This may well be the reason that buying experiences makes us happier than buying things. (The hedonic treadmill probably plays a role as well).
The Franklin effect also seems similar to embodied cognition. Our bodies shape our brains (perhaps) even more than our brains shape our bodies. I use a simple form of embodied cognition to improve my mood. Each time I look at my smart phone (which is all too often), I remind myself to smile for ten seconds. Making my face smile frequently (even though it’s artificial and arbitrary) elevates my mood for much longer than ten seconds.
The Franklin effect also relates to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT suggests that we can challenge cognitive distortions by changing our behavior. CBT also posits that what we believe to be true is indeed true for us. If we believe we will always fail, no matter what we do, …well, we’ll probably fail. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
All too often, we predict what we’re going to do and then live up to our prediction. Such predictions can produce vicious (or virtuous) circles. CBT addresses these automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), by asking us to change the meaning we assign to our thoughts and to change our behaviors. In essence, it’s asking us to challenge our thoughts, change our behaviors, and use our bodies to reshape our plastic brains.
I doubt that Ben Franklin understood all these connections when he asked to borrow a book from a political opponent. But he did have an important insight: the action shapes the attitude, not the other way round. Think about your actions and attitudes. And, if you want someone to like you, just borrow a book.