Leaning In Versus Leaning Out – What Does It Mean? A Study Unlocks More Clues Behind The Brain-Body Link
Christopher Philip

Leaning posture has been repeatedly attributed to perceived interest.  A person depicted leaning forward rather than away has been judged to be more attuned to the task at hand.  Those leaning away and slouched have been judged as being bored or disinterested.  However, until now, no research has actually measured if the posture itself actually increases or decreases concentration.

Leaning posture has been repeatedly attributed to perceived interest. A person depicted leaning forward rather than away has been judged to be more attuned to the task at hand. Those leaning away and slouched have been judged as being bored or disinterested. However, until now, no research has actually measured if the posture itself actually increases or decreases concentration.

There is growing evidence linking the body, nonverbal communication and mental processing. This is referred to as the “embodied” nature of cognition. It says that the body’s state, its posture, or facial expressions, for example, affects the cognitive function of the brain. This is what we casually referred to as “body language.” What we’ve intuitively known for years, that the body tells of internal mental processes, is becoming increasingly more obvious with new research.

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Science has uncovered many hidden secretes. Research has been conducted not only in the posture’s ability to communicate emotional states (is this person angry), but also how their feelings (how much does this person like another person). We know, for example, that standing with an expanded chest with the head erect shows pride and arrogance while leaning in toward another person indicates feelings of comfort and liking.

Additional research has shown that adopting specific postures also induces cognitive states. For example, instructing someone to slouch by rolling their shoulders inward, lowering their chin and slinking down into a chair – a helpless posture, creates a state of low self worth. The opposite condition can be created with the reverse posture – rolling the shoulders back, holding the head high and puffing the chest out. This increases feelings of wellbeing. Interestingly, a more upright posture has been linked to physiological changes of arousal including an increase in hear rate – pretty amazing stuff.

Leaning posture has been repeatedly attributed to perceived interest. A person depicted leaning forward rather than away has been judged to be more attuned to the task at hand. Those leaning away and slouched have been judged as being bored or disinterested. However, until now, no research has actually measured if the posture itself actually increases or decreases concentration.

The Experiments

The current research conducted by Joseph Chisholm, University of British Columbia, Evan Risko, Arizona State University and Alan Kingstone, University of British Columbia wanted to find out whether or not leaning postures were associated with interest or engagement.

In the first part of the study, the researchers had participants adopt either a slouched or bored sitting posture or an engaged, erect posture, while playing a video game. Thus, the participants were either told to slouch back in the chair, leaning away from the display or sit erect and leaning slightly toward the screen. They ran the racing game a total of 10 times in each sitting condition.

The results of the first experiment showed that in whether subjects leaned in or leaned away did not affect the level of self reported interest. In other words, leaning in and leaning away did not dictate or control the interest levels of the participants. Both leaning in and leaning out postures had the same effect.

Interestingly, however, participants’ were perceived by others to be interested if they leaned in and disinterested if they leaned out. Those that leaned in where rated to be more focused whereas those that leaned away, were rated by others as less focused.

In the second experiment researchers used a more traditional task. Here, they gave the subjects the same instructions as before, to lean in or lean out, except this time, the subjects were given a set of word puzzles to solve instead of a video game.

The researchers figured the word puzzles would require more focus and perhaps uncover a more expected result, namely that leaning in would boost performance and focus.

However, like the first experiment, no self-reported boost of focus was found in the leaning-in condition and the adopted posture had no effect on task performance. Again, however, those who leaned in were also rated by others as more focused than those that leaned out, replicating the findings from the first experiment.

In the final experiment, subjects were instructed to take on either a focused or unfocused posture. This time, no specific postures were suggested. Instead subjects were told one of two things. “Sit in the chair as if you are really focused and very engaged in the computer tasks” or “Sit in the chair as if you are really unfocused
and very unengaged in the computer tasks.” Thus, they had to independently adopt a posture to see what kind of posture people associate with the two conditions.

The results of the experiment showed that subjects naturally adopted the postures suiting the focused and unfocused state. That is, they leaned in when told to be focused and leaned away when told to be unfocused. In this case, however, those told to adopt a focused posture performed better at the tasks than the ones told to use an unfocused posture.

Conclusions

It seems as if the posture itself is not enough generate focus or lack of focus – something else it at play. The answer could stem from the third experiment. Attention is generated not specifically from the body posture, but rather from an internal locus. In all cases, participants rated others who leaned in as being more focused and those that leaned out as unfocused. Additionally, when asked to take on postures indicating focus, participants leaned in and when instructed to take on postures indicating lack of focus, participants leaned out.

The researchers conclude that “although we are readily able to infer the mental state of others via bodily cues, the information offered by the body, and interpreted by another, may not always accurately reflect an individual’s actual internal state.”

However, leaning forward might have other advantages not accounted for in the present study “forward leaning could reflect one manifestation of that preparation to act. In our physical environment, moving toward an object increases the effectiveness with which we can act on that object (i.e., manipulate and respond to). Interacting with a screen or puzzle, as in this experiment, is not made easier by moving closer to it. This might partially explain why no effect was found. So while subjects wished to increase focus, moving closer didn’t have an appreciable effect.”

What we know for sure is that when people are asked to focus, they lean in and when they are told to unfocus, the lean out. Perhaps this behaviour is something we learn to do by others, however doubtful. Perhaps in most conditions, moving in, helps us track the situation better, but was not a factor in this study. Regardless, more research is necessary to link leaning behaviour to cognition.

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Resources

Joseph D. Chisholm; Evan F. Risko; Alan Kingstone. The Embodiment Of Focus: Investigating The Impact Of Leaning Behavior On Our Cognitive State and Other’s Perception of Our Cognitive State. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2013; 39 (1): 100–110.

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