Having a bigger desk can make you more dishonest

“Too big? There’s barely room for me to stand on it.”
“Too big? There’s barely room for me to stand on it.”
Image: AP Photo / Paul Sancya
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Body language experts sometimes advise those working in the world of business to appear more confident by adjusting their posture. (Don’t cross your arms; try to take up as much space as possible without looking awkward.) But a new study suggests that people who are able to spread out because they have a large desk or wide car seat, for example, are also more likely to cheat, steal money, or break traffic rules.

Now, of course, people with larger desks and bigger cars are also likely to have more power, and the question of whether power corrupts comes with its own slew of research and debate. But for the purposes of this study, the authors argue, having a larger space leads to expansive posture, which has a subtle but powerful effect on our psychology. “Environments that expand the body can inadvertently lead us to feel more powerful, and these feelings of power can cause dishonest behavior,” the paper, “The Ergonomics of Dishonesty” (pdf) by a team of academics from US universities, concludes.

In an experiment, subjects were told they would be paid $4 for their services but were given $8 seemingly accidentally. The researchers found that 78% of those who were told to hold an expansive pose—standing with hands on their hips, legs spread slightly—kept the extra money. Only 38% of participants who were told hold contractive positions, like crossing one’s legs and arms, did so. Other experiments found that those with bigger car seats in a racing game were more likely to break a game rule, and those with bigger desks were more likely to cheat on a test.

Still, this doesn’t mean that squeezing into a smaller desk or car seat will help your moral integrity. One possible explanation, according to the study, is that expansive posture makes people more assertive and more likely to carry out any act, whether dishonest or honest. And given that slumped, contorted poses have been linked to a sense of helplessness and feelings of stress and expansive postures to resilience against stress, you’re still better off with a bigger desk at work. And better still, standing up from it from time to time.