a man smoking a cigarette

When a villain in a Bond film greets 007, he sits in an expansive armchair with his legs luxuriously crossed and arms stretched out. If a Bond villain sat slumped in Ikea’s cheapest chair or with his hands clasped in his lap, it would not feel right.

That is because people’s status and power are expressed by their posture and behaviour. Executives and celebrities tend to take up lots of space, hold their heads steady, and initiate contact. Their underlings hesitate to make body contact, orient themselves around their boss, and strike less expansive poses. 

People generally recognize this, but these social forces can easily become invisible. Watching an actor suddenly switch into a powerful persona can be striking – as it was for this author to see a friend stretched out lazily in the sun morph instantly into a powerful CEO. 

We naturally express our feelings and social status physically – the word emotion comes from a latin root meaning to move out, remove, or agitate. But causality runs both way, with our postures and behaviours shaping our thoughts and feelings. The most sheepish person will start to feel powerful and confident if they sit in the Oval Office with their feet on Obama’s desk. No matter how happy you feel, you’ll start to feel angry if you scowl. 

This means that our surrounding environments may strongly influence our feelings and behaviours. A forthcoming paper from researchers at MIT, Columbia, Northwestern, Harvard, and Berkeley investigates whether something as simple as the size of our chair or workspace can nudge us toward dishonesty. 

The study, entitled “The Ergonomics of Dishonesty: The Effect of Incidental Posture on Stealing, Cheating, and Traffic Violations,” begins by citing academic research on the link between posture and thoughts, feelings, and social status. In a terrifyingly offhand manner, they also cite research showing that powerappears to be linked to increases in a wide range of dishonest behaviors.” The theoretical ground for their idea established, they ask whether manipulating the physical environment can induce people to act less honestly. 

The researchers recruited students and community members from their respective universities for 3 experiments. Each put participants in a low or high status position and then offered them a chance to act dishonestly. 

The first asked people to strike a wide, expansive pose (high status) or a narrow, constrained pose (low status) under the guise of studying the effect of stretching on a psychological topic. The researchers recruited participants by promising payment of $4, but at the end they clearly held out $8. Seventy-eight percent of participants in the more powerful pose accepted the extra money, while only 38% of those in the less powerful pose did so.

The next two experiments found the same effect at work when people were induced into more powerful or weaker postures by their environment: 

The second experiment asked participants to solve a set of anagram puzzles while sitting at either a cramped or spacious workstation. They received money for each puzzle they successfully completed. Unbeknownst to them, their answers were recorded via a hidden carbon copy, but they were then given an answer key and asked to grade their own papers, offering a chance to cheat. 

In the third experiment, participants sat in either large or small chairs and played a racing video game to earn money by beating a minimum time. But a video recorded the participants to see whether they would violate an additional rule imposed by the researchers. 

To test their idea outside of a controlled setting, the study asked a question most people assume the answer to – are people in Hummers and Mercedes SUVs jerks? To do so, a group of research assistants recorded instances of cars double-parking on a stretch of New York City streets. In each instance, they noted the make and model of the double-parked car. 

Data in hand, the researchers calculated the expansiveness of the seat in each double-parked car from information on the manufacturers’ website. They also used survey data on the perceived prestige of each brand as a control in their analysis.

Double-parking is illegal and, especially in a city like New York, a huge pain to other drivers. While admitting that they could not control for factors like the demographics of the drivers and the present value of the car, the researchers concluded that “for a standard deviation increase in driver’s seats size from the mean, the probability that the vehicle would be double-parked increases from 51% to 71%.” 

Full details on each experiment are available here.

The authors of the study conclude that this is evidence that an expansive pose induced by our physical environment (mediated by the resulting feelings of confidence, power, and status) can lead us to be dishonest. They suggest that “dishonesty could be lurking in our ordinary, everyday environments—such as our cars, workstations, and offices.” Put another way, the Bond villain may be a villain not because he is evil, but because he is sitting in a swag armchair.

However, we have had many conversations with high status people in luxurious chairs that were both pleasant and did not end with us trying to figure out where our wallets went. And the researchers do concede that dishonesty is not the inevitable result of the empowering feeling of sitting in a nice chair.

They note research suggesting that confidence and power may amplify one’s personality or the dominant social cue in a given situation. Since they looked at situations in which dishonesty was prompted (an opportunity to cheat or unduly profit in the lab experiments, or the stress of being unable to find a parking space in New York City), they found increased dishonesty. 

So there is no 100% clear lesson to draw about what type of chair you should buy at IKEA or furnish your office with. But this does suggest to us few practical applications. Casinos, for example, should be full of giant armchairs that encourage overconfidence and ever more gambling.

Moreover, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, intended to prevent a repeat of the recession, has been hotly contested and its implementation slow. The dominant social cue of Wall Street targetted by the Act is gambling like a casino and dishonest but profitable opportunities like reporting false interest rates or hiding Greece’s debts. Maybe the reform to Wall Street we need isn’t a new Glass-Steagall Act, but mandating that its executives and traders sit hunched over in tiny, cheap chairs.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.