How Everyday Ergonomics Shape Your Behavior

Everything, from desks to car seats, can influence our thoughts and behavior–though not always for the better.

How Everyday Ergonomics Shape Your Behavior
[Image: Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne via Wikipedia]

One of Darwin’s greatest insights came at the end of his 1872 work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. “The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it,” he wrote. Darwin simply meant that emotion and expression cut both ways: you can thrust out your chest because you feel proud, or you can feel proud because you thrust out your chest.


Modern science has confirmed the wisdom of this perception time and again. People feel happier when their facial muscles are positioned into a smile. And they feel sadder when they’re made to hunch over. And, sure enough, they feel a surge of power when their chests and arms are expanded–so much so that their testosterone levels increase. The expression of power indeed intensifies the emotion, all the way down to its physiological roots.

Recently, M.I.T. management scholar Andy J. Yap, one of the collaborators on the power pose study, wondered what might happen to emotions if the environment put people in a powerful posture by accident. After all, some of us take the wheel of enormous SUVs, or sit down to work at large corner desks. Perhaps the casual ergonomics of our lives have an unintended influence on our thoughts and behavior.

“We don’t need to stand like Superman or Wonder Woman to actually feel powerful,” Yap tells Co.Design. “Our posture is being shaped by these environments, and that could make us feel powerful.”

Yap and two other researchers tested this idea in a series of experiments published online last month in the journal Psychological Science. They found that everyday ergonomics can, in fact, make us feel powerful, but not necessarily in a good way. With empowerment comes entitlement, and with entitlement comes dishonesty.

In one of the experiments, Yap’s team asked study participants to sit at a desk and complete an anagram test. The participants didn’t know it, but their answers were carbon-copied. That ruse would become important later on.

After the test, participants were asked to assemble various items on their desk into a collage. Some of the work spaces were large, causing participants to stretch and reach for items; others were small, causing them to squeeze their arms in tight. The task may have felt pointless to the participants but it had a key purpose: to make them expand or contract their bodies, unconsciously, into positions of power or submission.


When the collages were finished, the experimenters handed out answer keys to the anagram test. They asked participants to grade the test themselves, a request that left the door for cheating wide open. Or so participants presumed. In fact, the carbon copies made it clear who was honest and who wasn’t. Yap and company found that participants seated at large desks, whose bodies had expanded into a powerful posture during the collage task, changed more of their wrong answers than the others did.

The work environment had influenced people’s behavior without their knowing it. In subsequent experiments, focusing on the size of drivers’ seats, Yap’s team found that our living environments can produce similar effects. Participants in a spacious car simulator were more likely to hit-and-run during a lab game (despite explicit instructions to stop after a crash), and cars with big driver’s seats were more likely than those with small ones to be double-parked on Manhattan streets (even controlling for car length).

“I think we’re at a tipping point where we’re beginning to understand that hey, look, our environment can actually change our psychology,” Yap says. “Most importantly, our environment can influence our behavior. Some behavior can have very serious consequences if you don’t control it well.”

The practical implications of this work may seem obvious from a design perspective. Car manufacturers can encourage responsible driving by building smaller front seats. Office managers can produce honest workers by arranging smaller desks. Las Vegas casinos might even inspire riskier behavior at the gambling tables by installing larger seats.

But even Yap admits that lesson is far too shallow. For starters, not all power is a bad thing; when it’s not corrupting people, power can also lead to a well-organized office and improve personal well-being. Besides, any attempt to shape emotions through the built environment must consider more than body posture. There’s no point to making small work desks or car seats, for instance, if the benefits are offset by other factors like office politics or traffic rage.

So while Yap thinks science will eventually inform ergonomic design, he’s not sure it’s ready to do so just yet. “I think what we know about how postures in the environment change our psychology is so limited,” he says. “We’re at the stage where we’re finding a little bit more about these things.” In other words, he suggests we wait for the insight to evolve. Darwin would be proud.


[Images: Courtesy of Andy Yap]

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).