Is Your iPhone Turning You Into a Wimp?

The body posture inherent in operating everyday gadgets affects not only your back, but your behavior. According to a new study by Maarten Bos and Amy Cuddy, operating a relatively large device inspires more assertive behavior than working on a small one.
by Carmen Nobel

What kind of a device are you using to read this article? And what does your body posture look like? Are you hunching over a smartphone screen, arms tightly at your side? Are you slouching over an iPad or laptop? Or are you stretched out comfortably in an office chair, scanning a large desktop monitor?

The answer may determine whether you'll play the wimp or the hero in your next office meeting.

The body posture inherent in operating everyday gadgets affects not only your back, but your demeanor, reports a new experimental study entitled iPosture: The Size of Electronic Consumer Devices Affects Our Behavior. It turns out that working on a relatively large machine (like a desktop computer) causes users to act more assertively than working on a small one (like an iPad).

“We wanted to study how interacting with a device affected how people behave afterward.”

"People are always interacting with their smartphones before a meeting begins, thinking of it as an efficient way to manage their time," says Maarten Bos, a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard Business School, who co-wrote the study with HBS Associate Professor Amy Cuddy. "We wanted to study how interacting with a device affected how people behave afterward."

The study is related to previous experimental research in which Cuddy and colleagues prove the positive effects of adopting expansive body postures - hands on hips, feet on desk, and the like. Deliberately positioning the body in one of these "power poses" for just a few minutes actually affects body chemistry, increasing testosterone levels and decreasing cortisol levels. This leads to higher confidence, more willingness to take risks, and a greater sense of well-being, according to the 2010 report by Andy Yap, Cuddy and Dana Carney, "Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance."

Contractive body postures such as folded arms have shown the opposite effect, decreasing testosterone and increasing cortisol. Bos and Cuddy wondered whether there might be behavioral ramifications from using electronic devices. Looming over his colleagues at six feet, seven inches tall, Bos must contract his body more than most of us when operating a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. But many of us constrict our neck and hunch our shoulders when we use our phones. And statistics show that we use our phones a lot.

Maarten Bos contracts his body posture to type on a smartphone.Americans spend an average of 58 minutes per day on their smartphones, according to a recent report from Experian Marketing Services. Talking accounts for only 26 percent of that time. The other 73 percent is devoted to texting, e-mail, social networking, and web-surfing - in other words, activities spent hunched over a little screen. (Usage varies according to the type of smartphone: iPhone users spend an average of one hour and 15 minutes with their phones each day, with only 22 percent of that time devoted to talking.)

The Lab Experiment

Bos and Cuddy hypothesized that, compared with smaller devices, interacting with larger devices would lead to more expansive body postures, which in turn would lead to behaviors associated with power—including assertiveness and risk-taking behavior. Previous experimental research had shown that people were more likely to gamble after holding their bodies in expansive poses and less likely in constrictive poses. Now they wanted to look into whether behavior was affected during the poses. This might help to answer questions like: Would people be more likely to join a game of online poker while using a desktop computer than while using an iPhone? Would they be more likely to bid higher on an eBay auction when competing to buy a product?

To test their hypothesis, Bos and Cuddy conducted an experiment at the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory, a university-wide research facility for behavioral research. They paid 75 participants $10 each and randomly assigned them to perform a series of tasks on one of four devices, each successively larger than the next: an iPod Touch (which looks like an iPhone), an iPad, a MacBook Pro laptop, or an iMac desktop computer. Each participant sat alone in a room during the experiment, monitored by a research assistant.

The experiment went like this: After five minutes of using the assigned device to take an online survey, each participant was given two dollars, along with the choice of keeping it or gambling it in a double-or-nothing gambling game with 50/50 odds. Next, the participant continued with a few other tasks and a final questionnaire, all on the assigned device.

Before leaving participants alone in a room, a researcher said, If I am not here in five minutes, please come get me at the front desk.  This graph shows how long participants waited - or whether they left the room at all.  The results were tied to the size of device the participant had been using.When the participants were done with the tasks, the researcher pointed to a clock in the room and 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."

Rather than returning in five minutes, though, the researcher waited a maximum of ten minutes, recording whether and/or when the participant had come out to the front desk.

A Beautiful Effect

The experiments showed no apparent effect on the participants' gambling behavior. The majority chose to gamble the two dollars and to risk taking another card in Blackjack, regardless of which piece of Apple equipment they were using.

However, device size substantially affected whether the participant left the room after waiting the requisite five minutes. Of the participants using a desktop computer, 94 percent took the initiative to fetch the experimenter. For those using the iPod Touch, only 50 percent left the room.

And among those who did leave the room, the device size seemed to affect the amount of time they waited to do so. The bigger the device was, the shorter the wait time. On average, desktop users waited 341 seconds before fetching the experimenter, for instance, while iPod Touch users waited an average of 493 seconds.

"The steady increase of waiting time is locked in step with the size of the device," Bos says. "I have never before in my life seen such a beautiful effect."

The results indicate that expansive body postures lead to power-related behaviors, even in cases where the posture is incidentally induced by the size of the gadget or computer. As for the difference between the gambling and waiting results, this may indicate that it takes a little while for body posture to affect behavior. After all, it was the final task of the experiment that garnered the dramatic results. "So, what we're thinking now is that you need at least a few minutes of interacting with a device, or, more importantly, of being in a specific posture related to that device, before you find effects," Bos says.

However, he says, it will take additional experiments to determine whether expansive postures are only effective after the fact. "It may be that power-posing doesn't actually work during the power-posing, but it works right after," he says, "Future research will tell."

Next Steps

In a related line of work, the researchers are studying whether our behavior is affected by how we sleep - curled up in the fetal position, for example, versus limbs sprawled across the bed. Bos and Cuddy also are planning to conduct a field experiment, measuring the effect of device-induced body posture in an actual office setting.

In the meantime, the initial lab results suggest it may be a good idea to avoid the smartphone immediately before your next big sales meeting. Texting up until the boss starts speaking may make you look busy, but it may make you act meek.

"We won't tell anyone not to interact with those devices just before doing something that requires any kind of assertiveness," Bos says. "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."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Rebecca
    • Research Associate, NYU
    Were all devices removed when the experimenter left the room at the end of the experiment? I'm curious because I would think someone who only had the monitor is less likely to be entertained by that device to pass waiting time than someone with a handheld, no?
    • Carmen Nobel
    • senior editor, HBS Working Knowledge
    Good question, Rebecca. I ran this question by Maarten Bos. He responds, "The device remained in the room, but they were told not to do anything with it. On videocameras we could see that they indeed did not interact with the device."
    • Sachet Thapa
    • Manager Finance, Laxmi Bank ltd, Nepal
    Thank god we use desktop in our office where we spent huge amount of time.
    Good insight on our behaviour pattern. But what are they doing after waiting for more than 5 minutes?? playing with devices?
    • Tunde Taiwo
    • Relationship Manager, Stanbic IBTC Asset management Limited
    The average person accesses their smartphones about 30 times a day.

    It is causing a crisis of attention especially at meetings and presentations where people engage in entertainment rather than being focused.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    I have always been using a desk top and, even before the research now come across, have found this mode very convenient. It allows one to stretch, give less strain to eyes due to bold print and a feeling of not getting unduly tired. Yes, other modes are handy and can by carried along from location to location and could be utilized in such situations. But, when at one spot,it is preferably to use a desk top as far as possible.This will reflect our personality better.
    • Andrea Cazarim
    In my opinion, this research may also explain the feeling of power of a boss: his chair is much more comfortable than his employees' ones and that fact obviously interferes on negotiation between them... But there is another example: in a meeting room, where a board meeting takes place, the chairs are the same for all because people who are attending it have the same level of power.
    • gareth
    • Prone
    Did they only do it on Apple products?
    Is the demographic that they chose indicative of the users of these products?
    Does familiarity with device have a effect? Or personal preferences for use?

    Will be an interesting read! Also intrigued by the 'sleeping position' - will sleeping sprawled out in a big bed increase your effectiveness to close sales...or does flying 'cattle class' really affect your ability to seal a deal? Will be nice argument with boss - flying business class increases success rate by X%
    • Maarten Bos
    • Post-Doctoral Fellow of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
    Hi Gareth,

    We only used Apple products in this study, to avoid an effect of luxury items versus non-luxury items. We had a variety of participants. Familiarity is a good question. We did take into account how long it took participants to finish the survey on the device, which is an indication of how comfortable they were with the devices: How long it took to finish the survey did not change the effect we report here.

    We have at some point talked about the business class versus econ class flights, and it is an interesting point. I believe Malhotra and Bazerman, in their book 'Negotiation Genius' (I recommend it!) also mention something about that if I remember correctly.

    Thank you for your comments!

    Maarten Bos
    • Ramil Dinglasa
    • DM Student, Ateneo de Davao University
    The results are amazing. I for one prefer desktop even over my laptop and my iphone not only in writing some reports or documents at work but also in surfing the web as well as logging in to my fb and other social network accounts.
    My reason for that is more on convenience and comfort. It is easier to use the desktop compared to small devices. But i never thought that it has an impact on our behaviors.
    Ergonomically right positions when using the desktop computers are employed by many organizations as part of their health and Safety policy.
    Adding some behavioral implications might increase employees adherence to it.
    I will definitely share this article to my colleagues and friends.
    • Will Wilkin
    • Co-Owner-Operator, Made In USA Solar LLC
    On the meta-level, these kinds of research questions reflect the myopia that has led the USA into a historic decline. Instead of asking "what subconscious effect does my choice of device have upon my personality?" it would be much more useful for business academics to ask "why are all our devices imported and what are the long-term effects on American prosperity that the manufacturing has been offshored?" Business and political leadership focusing on individual personal success with zero social and historic context or concerns is the kind of thinking that has brought our country to spreading poverty and unemployment as the 1% get richer than ever by dismantling America's productive economy so their globalized corporations with zero loyalty to America or our people can myopically and selfishly chase every global advantage.
    • Maarten Bos
    • Post-Doctoral Fellow of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
    Hi Will Wilkin,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I couldn't disagree more. There is absolutely no way that our research question reflects that. We are also not asking: "what subconscious effect does my choice of device have upon my personality?" Our participants were assigned a device; they did not choose one. Also, we are not looking at personality; we are looking at behavior and how it is nudged by circumstances.

    I would argue that our research question, which deals with "what is the impact of devices that cause our body posture to change" is very important given the reality of ubiquitous devices. Suggesting that all researchers should be focusing on just the one political and economical field that you are describing does not do justice to the training different researchers have.

    More importantly, it is completely besides the point of the article: There is no reason to assume these effects would not be found with devices that were made in the USA.

    Maarten Bos
    • Mark
    • Psychologist
    I may have missed this - but what there a correlation between device used and actual body posture? Seems obvious but I just didn't see it in the article. Very interesting stuff.
    • Guy
    I'd be curious to see what would happen if they were given more than $2 to bet - or if they had to front money from their $10 fee.

    Have an inkling that the small sum contributed morre to their willingness to gamble than any other factor.
    • Dan Candela
    • Director, Technology, Walt Disney Animation Studios
    This is very interesting research!

    What did the participants do during their wait? Was it similar? Could the device used have influenced that?

    Did they have access to their own electronic devices during the wait? If so, could using a mobile device in the experiment have primed them to use their own at all or for a longer period?
    • Carolyn Turknett
    • Turknett Leadership Group
    Would like to know the answer to Rebecca's question - what were the participants doing once they completed the survey? Could they use the device for entertainment? Most of us see an iPhone or iPad size device as a possible instrument of entertainment, and would likely begin playing around with it if that were possible. If you're using someone else's laptop or desktop, you usually leave it alone. If the devices turned off automatically once the participant finished the survey, there would be no "entertainment factor" contamination.
    • Maarten Bos
    • Post-Doctoral Fellow of Business Administration (former), Harvard Business School
    Hi Mark:
    You are correct, we did not measure body posture, which is an important missing variable. The findings support our hypothesis, which is why we wrote the paper in this way. Follow up research will have to measure the body posture and make this link more explicit.

    Hi Guy:
    I'd also be curious to see what happens when the gambling amount increases. Right now none of the variables influenced the betting behavior. It could well be that the small gamble amount was the reason. We chose this amount because it fits with previous successful research. Because we (have to) adhere to strict ethical rules, we cannot ask participant to gamble their fee.

    Hi Dan Candela and Carolyn Turknett:
    Participants just sat and waited after the survey was finished. They were video monitored, and were not interacting with the device or other devices during that time.

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments!
    • Nericwilson
    • Spiritual seeker, Soul space
    Eventually technology will only make people to become more wimpish than ever before. In current age of technology, people have become more lazy & fatty. From behavioural perspective, early man was far more assertive and athletic than today's technology dependent wimpy man! So is technology serving and making our lives more easier? - Yes! But is it also making one to dig his own grave a lot earlier than expected? - Sure Enough!
    • Saad K Bashir
    • Senior Manager Products, Vimpelcom
    Insightful. Certainly couple of take outs for device makers & even cellular players. One thing though, the average duration that Americans spend on their smartphones (58 minutes per day) seems very less especially when you consider the amount of tasks people do on their smartphones - listening to music, social networking, checking emails, using apps to name the few frequent ones.
    • Enrico Perkins Jr
    • Marketing and New Media Specialist, USDA Forest Service
    Was "time display on the device" taken into account? There was a clock in the room, but what about whether or not the user could see the time on their device shouldn't go unnoticed.

    When working on a desktop or laptop, the time is always visible in the lower/upper right corner. Users don't have to stop their task to see what time it is - or in the case of the experiment, how much time has passed.

    In contrast on smartphones and tablets, certain activities like games and movies hide the time display. A user has to interrupt their activity to figure out how much time has passed.

    The differences in how time is displayed on each of the devices skew the results. Users on the larger devices are much more likely to get up, because they can see how much time has passed with a quick glance.
    • Maarten Bos
    • Post-Doctoral Fellow of Business Administration (former), Harvard Business School
    Hi Enrico Perkins Jr.:

    Thank you for your comments.

    At the time when the time / clock was relevant, our participants had already stopped working with the device.

    Maarten Bos