Our Physical Surroundings And Postures Can Make Us Dishonest, Newest Study Confirms

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An expansive office space or desk, or even a large car interior, alters our posture, making us feel more powerful…and this tends to make us dishonest…that’s according to new research to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The study, entitled ‘The Ergonomics of Dishonesty’ (Yap et al), draws upon four earlier studies showing how our physical surroundings, posture, and consequent feelings of power combine to promote less than honest behaviors.

In the course of living our daily lives we tend not to pay much attention to small alterations in our bodily posture, but these small changes can have a very large impact on our thoughts, feeling and choices. Our physical surroundings actually “force” subtle changes in posture upon us which in turn influence how we feel and act — in many test cases, dishonestly.

Lead researcher Andy Yap explains:

“In everyday working and living environments, our body postures are incidentally expanded and contracted by our surroundings — by the seats in our cars, the furniture in and around workspaces, even the hallways in our offices — and these environments directly influence the propensity of dishonest behavior in our everyday lives,”

A previous study showed that “expansive postures” can promote feelings of personal power and that this empowered state can lead to dishonest behavior. In this newest study, researcher built upon these and other earlier findings to show that nonverbal postures forced upon people by their environments can influence our choices and behaviors to make us less honest.

One earlier laboratory study manipulated the expansiveness of the laboratory work spaces and then tested to see whether subjects’ “incidentally” expanded postures (shaped by one’s physical surroundings) led to more dishonest behaviors (determined by a test following the manipulations). Another experiment used automobiles as the test lab, putting subjects in cars with a more expansive driver’s seat and were tested to see if they were then more likely to “hit and run” while playing a video game that “incentivised” players to drive fast.

Each of these studies found a strong correlation between alterations in postures (induced by alterations in the size of the physical setting) and subsequent  dishonest behaviors — like cheating and stealing — sometimes even leading to actual illegal behavior.

In a final study to see if these findings applied in the real world, an observational field study was conducted to determine if automobile driver’s seat size could predict the likelihood of (more) parking violations on the streets of New York city. Sure enough, results showed that car’s with larger driver’s seats were more likely to be illegally parked.

“This is a real concern. Our research shows that office managers should pay attention to the ergonomics of their work spaces. The results suggest that these physical spaces have tangible and real-world impact on our behaviors,” said Yap.

The study did not attempt to explain why this should be so, that is, what cognitive mechanism(s) translate our sense of expansive personal space into feelings of power and why this can make us dishonest.

Speculatively, this correlation may turn out to be a vestige of some primal territorial instinct wherein the more space we secure for ourselves, the more secure and powerful we become (and the greater our “biological advantage”, in the evolutionary sense), and, feeling so, we may come to feel that social norms and rules no longer apply to us. Thus we cheat.

We await more in depth studies.

Andy Yap is a former PhD student at Columbia Business School and currently a visiting professor at MIT Sloan School of Management; the research is co-authored by Abbie Wazlawek, a PhD student at Columbia Business School; Brian Lucas, a PhD student at Kellogg School of Management; Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School; and Dana Carney, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.




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