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Monday, November 4, 2013

Big Chairs Create Big Cheats 11-05

Big Chairs Create Big Cheats

by Andy Yap

The research: In a series of experiments, Andy Yap and his colleagues examined the impact that people’s ergonomic environments had on their ethics. The studies tested whether being put into an expansive or a contracted posture would affect people’s honesty. The results showed that subjects in larger workspaces and seats, which encouraged expansive postures, were more likely than other subjects to pocket, rather than return, an overpayment for participating in the study, to cheat on a test, and to break the rules in a driving simulation game.
The challenge: Is the boss a jerk because of the size of his chair? Is that guy running a red light because he’s in a giant SUV? Professor Yap, defend your research.
Yap: The effect of large spaces, which allow people to expand their postures, was clear. In our first study, in which we deliberately overpaid people to see whether they would point out our error, 78% of the participants who were put into expansive postures kept the overpayment, while only 38% of those who were put into contractive postures did. And in a follow-up field study, in which we observed illegally parked cars in New York, we saw that when the size of a driver’s seat increased by one standard deviation from the mean, the probability that a car would be double-parked increased from 51% to 71%.
HBR: Why would big seats and spaces affect people’s behavior?
Our bodies are perpetually constrained by our physical spaces. When these spaces are large, we incidentally adopt expansive postures. Such postures—open, widespread limbs that fill the space up—often project high power. Contractive, closed postures—in which limbs are pulled in close to the torso and the body collapses inward to minimize space—tend to project low power. It’s not having something big that makes you feel more powerful; these spaces allow you to have an expansive posture, and that’s what makes you feel more powerful. And the feelings of power are what alter your behavior.
Bigness is relative. To see this effect, do you need to change the driver’s seat or chair for someone who is 6'6" much more than for someone who is 5'4"?
We randomly assigned subjects to large and small spaces or postures, so we had an equal number of short people and tall people in each group. We looked at whether height influenced their poses, but we found that it had no effect.
So you’re saying that, regardless of my height, if I push back the driver’s seat in my car, I’ll be more likely to double-park?
It’s not clear that you’re automatically going to double-park. But there’s a higher likelihood that you will give in to a desire to double-park. Of course, there are many other things to consider, like whether you’re in a part of the city where spaces are scarce and the temptation to double-park is greater.
Isn’t it possible you’ve got this backward—that people likely to become bosses are dishonest, materialistic types who prefer big offices and big cars?
Yes, definitely. In our experiments, there certainly were people who were already more “corrupt” than others. However, since we randomly assigned participants to expansive or contractive postures, each group should have had an equal number of corrupt individuals. And the posture was the only variable that differed between the two groups. In any case, newer studies have shown that power has an intensifying effect on personality. So if you’re already corrupt, power brings out an even more corrupt persona. When people are very honest and ethical, though, power makes them more ethical.
So if I’m an honest person, a big space might make me more honest?
We don’t know that for sure. In our studies, we measured only cheating—we wanted to see if the increased sense of power would make people more likely to engage in it. But power itself is not always bad. Power is something like nuclear energy; it can be used for good or bad. Power can actually help you battle stress; power makes you more confident; power makes you feel more focused on your goals. And if you’re channeling it in the right way, you get very positive outcomes.
Do people who work at smaller desks or drive Priuses feel less powerful?
I think that, in general, if you have a smaller space, you feel powerless, especially in comparison with someone in a bigger space. But as I was running the study, I wondered, is there a limit to how powerless a contracted environment makes you feel? If your space is extremely, extremely small, will you feel so frustrated that you’re more likely to cheat? We didn’t measure this, but I think small spaces can change you only so much psychologically.
How do you know that the connection between power and large spaces isn’t just part of an American mind-set in which everything bigger is considered better?
We didn’t measure or test this effect across cultures, but size is so fundamentally related to power and powerlessness. This connection has been found in both animals and humans. However, a recently published study did find that certain poses, such as having your feet on a desk and your hands behind your head, don’t create a sense of power in East Asian cultures, because they’re inconsistent with East Asian norms of modesty and humility. In general the effect of expansive postures can be found across several cultures, but it will be attenuated for specific cultures.
What about other environments like rooms? How would this interview go if we were in a gigantic conference room with huge chairs?
Obviously, with a more expansive space, you feel you can spread out more, but I don’t know if bigger versus smaller rooms could actually lead to the things that the study found. You may feel very small and intimidated if only two of us are in a large conference room and all the chairs are very big. Then the size of the space might make you feel powerless.
If we can’t change how our posture adapts to our space, are we destined to be cheats and liars when we sit in big chairs?
I think it’s important to look at how ordinary, seemingly innocuous things in your life, like the spaces you sit in, can influence thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It’s also important to think about how to reduce corrupt behavior among the powerful. But we need to approach situations case by case.
In my study, we didn’t want the people in expansive poses to feel more comfortable than the people in contractive ones, so as I mentioned, we didn’t test what happens when space constraints are extreme. They might encourage cheating behavior, too. I wouldn’t take the findings literally and say that everyone should have a small desk. The psychology of power is intricate, and what reduces corrupt behavior among ordinary people might not work for powerful people.
How big is your desk?
My desk is about average—I don’t think I take up an expansive pose too often. I’m not usually in a contractive pose, but I do a little bit of both, depending on when I want to be expansive or when I want to be contractive.

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