The mere act of folding your arms increases perseverance and activates an unconscious desire to succeed, new research shows.
University students randomly assigned to sit with their arms crossed spent more time on an impossible-to-solve anagram, or word scramble, in one experiment, and came up with more correct solutions to solvable anagrams in another than those told to sit with their hands on their thighs.
The study is the first to show that arm crossing affects people's thinking without them being consciously aware of it.
Normally, it's thought that it's a psychological state that leads to a body movement. The study suggests it goes both ways, that a body movement also can trigger a psychological state.
Lead author Ron Friedman says the idea for the study came from watching former Miami Heat head coach Pat Riley pacing the sidelines, arms folded tightly across his chest, chin jutting forward, a "non-verbal signal," Friedman and co-author Andrew Elliot write, that could not be clearer: "I am going to persevere."
"(Riley's) got this book called, The Winner Within, and on the cover is him standing there with his arms crossed," Friedman, a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., said in an interview.
The researchers wondered, is Riley's posture more than just an outward sign of persistence? Their study appears in the most recent issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology.
"We were interested in determining if body movement doesn't just convey our thoughts and feelings to others, but that they also inform us, ourselves, about our own psychological states," Friedman says.
They looked at one specific body movement - arm crossing - because it is a behaviour widely associated with perseverance. Friedman calls it a kind of battery recharge, "a feeling of tightening, something you do when you settle in and try to get yourself energized."
In the first experiment, 41 University of Rochester undergraduates (five men and 36 women) were told either to cross their arms or to put their arms on their laps. Next, they were asked to solve three anagrams, two of which were easy, ("WODN" and "TOBOR"), the third unsolvable. It was the word "Rochester," scrambled but with one letter missing. ("OCHERSTE")
The researchers weren't looking at performance but rather straight-out persistence.
The arms-crossed participants persisted longer (80 seconds on average) than the arms-on-thighs group (less than 60 seconds).
In a second study, volunteers were given a series of solvable anagrams. Those in the arms-cross group did better, because they worked at it longer.
Friedman says that certain body positions over time become associated with specific psychological states of mind and become linked in memory, so that doing one automatically triggers the other.
"If you continue crossing your arms when you're feeling persistent, that association is going to trigger persistence just by arm crossing alone."
But crossing your arms can make people seem defensive, or, in a romantic relationship, emotionally distant. It also may mean different things across different cultures. "What we have here is a westernized culture. We didn't look to see if the same effect is happening in China and Japan."
As well, the study was done in a lab setting, and not the "real world."
Still, when later asked, "What do you think this study was trying to test?" not a single participant guessed it was about the role of arm position on persistence.
As for Riley, though he's no longer head coach after stepping down last week following a league-worst 15-67 season, he's still "persisting" as team president, Friedman says.