Are you hunched over your screen, slouching towards the floor like a rough beast? If so, join the club. Truthfully, I’m slumping, too. So let’s do ourselves a favor and sit up straight. It may help us think.
Back in the 14th century, Japanese zen master Daichi Sokei extolled the virtues of proper seating. He believed that assuming the right posture during sitting meditation—that is, legs crossed like a lotus blossom, straight back with open, relaxed shoulders—joined body and mind. It improved thought quality.
In fact, good posture was the essence of the zen meditation practice itself, according to the master. “If somebody should ask you what true zen is, it’s not necessary to explain using words,” Sokei said. “Instead, demonstrate the aspects of zazen posture. Then, spring breezes will gently coax the marvelous flowers of the plum tree to blossom.”
The benefits of sitting up straight extend beyond meditation. Research suggests that we feel better about ourselves and our endeavors when we sit—or stand—at attention.
Making math easy
One example comes from a new study published in the journal NeuroRegulation, which looked at how posture influenced students’ feelings about their performance. The study, led by Erik Peper, a health education professor at San Francisco State University, tested the effects of students’ posture during simple math exercises. The result? Students who were anxious about math reported that slouching made them feel less capable of calculation. Hunching down seemed to inhibit their thinking. Sitting up straight, on the other hand, gave them more confidence.
“For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference,” Peper explains in a statement. “The slumped-over position shuts them down and their brains do not work as well. They cannot think as clearly.”
The study tested 125 San Francisco State University students, with an average age of 23 years old. Half of the students sat in an erect position while the other half sat slouched. All were instructed to mentally subtract numbers for 30 seconds. The subjects then reversed their posture positions before repeating the math subtraction task. After the exercise, the students rated the math task difficulty on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 signifying extreme difficulty.
Generally, the students found the math test to be significantly more difficult while sitting slouched than while sitting erect. For participants who admitted the highest test anxiety and problems with math, slouching contributed even more to their sense of powerlessness. On the other hand, students who didn’t dread math or tests found no significant difference between their slouched and erect experiences. The exercise seemed simple to them either way.
The study reveals how shifts in posture change students’ feelings about their performance, rather than their performance itself. But the researchers say these findings suggest that posture could a simple way to help students who dread math. ”You have a choice,” says Peper. “It’s about using an empowered position to optimize your focus.”
Beyond the classroom, sitting up straight and being aware of our posture generally can help the rest of us when we encounter high-pressure situations like public speaking. The academics note that slouching and slumping puts people in a defensive position, which triggers memories of negative experiences and influences the way we think. ”The way we carry ourselves and interact in space influences not only how others perceive us but also how we perceive ourselves,” says paper co-author Laura Mason.
This claim is borne out by previous research. In a 1981 study (paywall), psychologists asked convicted criminals to watch video of pedestrians walking down a busy New York City sidewalk and pick out potential targets. Posture, more than a person’s size or seeming strength, was a factor in their choices, along with body language, pace, stride length, and environmental awareness. The hunched and slumped appealed to the criminals as marks.
Slouching doesn’t just look bad, or weak—it has widespread physical, emotional, and even social consequences. The New York Times (paywall) in 2015 reported that slouching can reduce lung capacity by as much as 30%, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches body tissues, including the brain, citing Rene Cailliet, a pioneer in the field of musculoskeletal medicine. “Poor posture can have ill effects that radiate throughout the body, causing back and neck pain, muscle fatigue, breathing limitations, arthritic joints, digestive problems and mood disturbances. It can also create a bad impression when applying for a job, starting a relationship or making new friends,” writes Jane Brody for Well.
All of this indicates that we should all be adopting good posture. But there are questions about what precisely positioning accomplishes.
While posture has a lot of appeal as a simple fix, it’s a controversial topic in the scientific community. The debate can be traced back to Harvard University psychologist Amy Cuddy, who was an author of a 2010 study (pdf) arguing that body language influences how we feel about ourselves and how others perceive us.
The study showed that subjects who sat in a cramped and huddled fashion did poorly in interviews and felt worse about themselves. Meanwhile those who took expansive positions—like shoulders wide, or legs on a desk—performed more confidently and felt better to boot. The study also found that so-called “power poses” increased the subjects’ testosterone levels and lowered their levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk on the subject garnered 46 million views with its irresistibly simple message, and led to the publication of her 2015 book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. Who doesn’t want to feel and seem more confident with just a shift in physical position?
But Cuddy’s theories soon came under fire. Some of her colleagues argued that she was publicizing “gee-whiz science” and that results of her studies couldn’t be replicated. In a 2017 study in the journal Psychological Science, psychologists Johnny Simons and Uri Simonsohn accused Cuddy of selectively reporting results and basically making claims that couldn’t be backed. Meanwhile, Dana Carney, a University of California, Berkeley professor—lead author of the original power poses paper published along with Cuddy and another professor, Andy Yap—declared in a post on her website (pdf) that she was persuaded by the failed replications of the study, writing, “I do not believe that ‘power pose’ effects are real.”
Cuddy, however, has an answer for her critics. This year, she published a rebuttal study in Psychological Science. Cuddy examined 55 different power posing studies and found “strong evidential value for postural-feedback (ie, power-posing) effects and particularly robust evidential value for effects on emotional and affective states (eg, mood and evaluations, attitudes, and feelings about the self).” So posture shifts and exercises do make people feel more confident, after all, she argues.
The original claims about hormonal changes brought on by power poses are still up in the air, however—Cuddy’s now declared herself to be agnostic on the matter. Still, the part that most laypeople care about is how power poses make them feel. And power poses do seem to make people feel better, which in turn can influence our performance. As Kim Elsesser writes for Forbes, “I certainly find myself in many situations when I’d like to feel more powerful. If adopting an expansive posture can help, I’m all in.”