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Why The Body Matters For Change
By Jeremy Stunt

Jeremy Stunt is a Hong Kong based executive coach and training facilitator with Limbic Human Capital where he helps people to be more resourceful and resilient at coping with change and uncertainty. Jeremy grounds his work in neuroscience to provide additional rigour and validity which he finds especially helpful with people who might otherwise be uncomfortable exploring subjects like emotional regulation, emotional intelligence or stress management.

"About five years ago I began the process of a major change from a career in banking to self-employment as a coach. My studies in ontological coaching have been core to my personal and professional transition; ontology is a powerful methodology for transformational change and continues to have a profound impact on me as both a learner and a practitioner with my clients. Part of my mission now is to bring my learning to others but for some people (myself included) a barrier to learning can be our reluctance to be experiential learners. By this I mean that we may find it hard to just try something to see if it works; we may feel the need for a ‘base level’ of theoretical evidence before being comfortable enough to engage with a particular subject. An example of this could be work-place conversations where we explore the importance of our mood or our posture to performance and productivity."

"My natural curiosity about the workings of the human mind and body has led to me explore connections between the ontological domains of language, mood and physiology. Below are some examples of research that I believe show why we must not neglect the domain of the body in particular."

Physiology and the domain of the body

1. Act like you’re helpless and you’ll be helpless

A study has revealed that subjects who had been temporarily placed in a slumped, depressed physical posture later appeared to develop helplessness more readily, as assessed by their lack of persistence while solving a frustrating task, than did subjects who had been placed in an expansive, upright posture. 

Riskind J. H. and Gotay C. C. (1982), “Physical Posture: Could It Have Regulatory or Feedback Effects on Motivation and Emotion?” Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1982

2. Sit up straight and you’ll have a more positive mood

A study has shown that posing in positive, upright postures leads individuals to rate themselves higher in leadership than posing in negative, slouched postures.

Arnette S. L. and Pettijohn II T.F. (2012), “The Effects of Posture on Self-Perceived Leadership.” International Journal of Business and Social Science Vol. 3 No. 14

3. How confident are we that we are right about something? It may depend on our posture.

Researchers have found that people who sit up straight are more likely to have greater confidence in their own thoughts compared to those who were slumped over their desks. In an experiment, participants with upright postures had more confidence in their own thoughts, whether those thoughts were positive or negative. We may think that our confidence is comes from our own thoughts but actually our posture affects how much we believe in what we’re thinking. In essence, our attitudes are embodied.

Briñol P., Petty R. and Wagner B. (2009), “Body posture effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach.” European Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 39, Issue 6, pages 1053–1064, October 2009

4. Your body contains your memory

Research shows that people will be quicker at remembering autobiographical events when their body positions during retrieval are similar to the body positions in the original events as compared to when their body position was incongruent. This is embodied cognition.

Dijkstra K., Kaschak M.P. and Zwaan R. A. (2007), “Body posture facilitates retrieval of autobiographical memories.” Cognition, vol. 102(1), Jan 2007, 139-149

5. Folding your arms stops you from giving in

In an experiment, inducing participants to cross their arms led to greater persistence on an unsolvable anagram. A second experiment revealed that arm crossing led to better performance on solvable anagrams, and that this effect was mediated by greater persistence.

Friedman R. and Elliot A. J. (2008), “The effect of arm crossing on persistence and performance.” European Journal of Social Psychology Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 38, 449–461

6. Posture impacts how we are empowered to act independently of our actual hierarchical position

Experiments have shown that whether people are in high- or low-power roles, it is their posture – expansive (wide open and tall) or constricted – that affects the implicit activation of power and the taking of action. Your role has a stronger effect than your posture on your sense of power but posture has a larger effect on actual action. There research is described in The Economist.

Huang, L. Galinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Guilory, L. E. (2011). “Powerful postures versus powerful roles: Which is the proximate correlate of thought and behavior?” Psychological Science, 22(1), 95-102.

7. High-power posing changes your neurochemistry

Posing for just one minute in a high-power nonverbal display (expansive posture) as opposed to a low-power nonverbal display (constrictive posture) causes neuroendocrine and behavioural changes for both men and women. High-power poses lead to elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibit the opposite pattern. Embodiment extends beyond mere thinking and feeling, to physiology and subsequent behavioural choices. Read more about the experiment.

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., Yap, A. J. (2010). “Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.” Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.

8. Grin and bear it: faking a smile, consistently and measurably elevates our moods

Participants in an experiment who held a pencil between their teeth thereby facilitating the muscles associated with smiling (without them posing a smiling face) typically found more humour in cartoons presented to them compared to the participants who held a pen with their lips to inhibit muscles associated with smiling. Participants who could not smile rated the cartoons as less funny.

Strack, F., Martin, L.L., & Stepper, S. (1988). “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768–777.

9. Checking your email? Don’t forget to breathe!

A research project has shown that when people read email, their breathing patterns can change. 80% of the people in the project appeared to have email apnoea – they held their breath or breathed shallowly. Holding your breath puts your body in "fight or flight" mode and also contributes to stress-related diseases because it upsets the body's balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is particularly important for regulating the body’s immune system but also has a role to play in learning, memory, sleeping, feeling pain and depression. Read more.

10. Chest beating reduces anxiety prior to public speaking

It has been said that if we beat (or tap firmly) our chest we will generate additional testosterone in our body and this will take several minutes to dissipate. So if you are feeling nervous about giving a speech in public, then lightly beating your chest (off stage!) will help calm your nerves and increase your self-confidence at the beginning of your speech.

11. If you tense your muscles, you can strengthen your willpower

Our bodies can with willpower and to facilitate the self-regulation essential for the attainment of long-term goals. Tensing your muscles can help firm willpower and firmed willpower facilitates your ability to withstand immediate pain, overcome tempting food, consume unpleasant medicines, and attend to immediately disturbing but essential information, provided doing so is seen as providing long term benefits.

Hung, I. W. & Labroo, A. (2011). “From firm muscles to firm willpower: Understanding the role of embodied cognition in self-regulation.” Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6), 1046-1064.

12. Washing your hands impacts how you feel about decisions you’ve made

Physical hand cleansing changes how an individual regards a decision they have just made. In particular it removes the need to justify decisions. Not only does the physical act of washing one’s hands ease the guilt we feel about past unethical deeds but it seems that the act also removes our natural inclination to validate even trivial past decisions. So if you’re having a hard time grappling with a decision you’ve just made, try washing your hands. Here is a description of an experiment.

Lee, S. and Schwarz N. (2010), “Washing Away Postdecisional Dissonance,” Science 7 May 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5979, p. 709.

© Newfield Institute

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