Oh how I wish I’d paid more attention during my high-school chemistry, biology, and physics classes. English lit was where it was at for me; science was something to be gotten through. But as an adult I find myself reading dozens of scientific studies every month, linking to the more interesting body/health-related ones in my newsletter. My reading has made me curious about what goes on behind the scenes of scientific research, and how much stock we can put in the findings that are published.
Enter Dr. Hannah Metzler, an Austrian with a PhD in cognitive science from the École Normale Supérieur in Paris, who was kind enough to spend some time talking to me about her research into how our posture affects our perception. She also has some things to say about the complicated nature of science, and why we should take what we read with a big grain of salt.
The Attentive Body: You studied psychology in Vienna and then went on to study neuroscience in Paris. Was there a specific experience in your life that nudged you towards these subjects?
Hannah Metzler: My general interest in psychology and social interactions comes from my parents: they’re both teachers and my Dad also works in schools as a therapist. I remember reading, in a psychology magazine my Dad subscribed to, about a study that described what happens to the activity in the fear networks in your brain when you’re in an experiment where you’re expecting an electric shock. The activity in these networks is immediately reduced if someone holds your hand, even if it’s a stranger. If it’s your partner holding your hand, this activity is reduced even more. I found that fascinating: just holding someone’s hand has a profound impact on what happens in your brain. I’ve always loved complex things. I wanted to spend time understanding the brain and finding out how it works.
TAB: What was your research topic?
HM: My thesis was about how the body, perception, and emotions interact. I investigated whether holding particular body postures influences how you see other people – specifically, how you receive social signals from people, especially from their faces.
TAB: Just to give some context: we know that humans and animals perceive and interpret facial expressions and body language, and this happens very quickly, doesn’t it?
HM: As quickly as within 100 milliseconds, your brain differentiates between threatening and non-threatening facial expressions or body postures. These things happen very fast because they’re crucial for your survival. Analyzing a face – for example, knowing who it belongs to – takes more time – but still less than a second. It’s all very quick.
TAB: If I hold an expansive posture – what you call a “power posture” – chest out, shoulders back, head high – how does it affect me, and how does it affect someone who looks at me?
HM: We absolutely know that your posture has a profound effect on how others perceive you. We do not know yet if holding a particular posture has any impact on how you feel about yourself. There was a study in 2010 that claimed that it did, but most of its findings have turned out not to be replicable. It’s currently a topic of debate.
TAB: So we have the postures we make that send out signals that other people read; the question of whether or not those postures affect how we feel about ourselves; and you wanted to take it a step further, to see if our postures affect how we see other people.
HM: Exactly. Though it doesn’t necessarily rely on how you feel about yourself. It could just be that feedback from your own body influences how you see other people. You don’t need to consciously feel anything for the body to have an impact on how you see other people.
TAB: Can you describe the actual experiments you did?
HM: People were assigned randomly (with a computer) to two groups. The only difference between the groups was which posture they were asked to adopt – an expansive one or a constrictive one. Both groups were shown about 600 stimuli on a screen. They had to recognize the emotion of a face on the screen, or guess which of two faces belonged to a particular group, or choose on which of two chairs they wanted to sit – and these chairs were next to other people, so there was always a face involved. We broke down the screen interaction into blocks of 5 to 8 minutes. In between, participants went into their assigned postures for 2 minutes.
It was important not to show people pictures of the postures, because then they get the impression that, “Ah! This looks dominant,” or “This looks submissive.” And it was also important for us not to tell them, “Take a dominant posture,” because just my comment could make them feel more powerful. So we gave them very precise instructions: “Please stand with your feet apart, turn them slightly outwards, put your hands on your hips with the thumbs to the back, don’t look at the floor…” The constrictive posture was: “Stand with your feet crossed, put one arm around your belly and the other arm on top of it, but without crossing them, let your shoulders drop, and look at the floor in front of you.”
Most of the measures I took were measures of which of two faces or two chairs or photos a participant chose. In one study, people had to discriminate between anger and fear.* They had to answer whether a particular face on-screen had an angry or a fearful expression. This sounds easy, but it was hard because we had morphed expression – low-level, almost neutral, but with a little anger. We measured reaction time – how long they took to recognize an emotion – and how many they got right. Another experiment was about people’s “action decisions”*: they had to choose between two free seats, both next to a person – one with a neutral expression, the other with either an angry or a fearful expression. People had to move their mouse to the chair of their choice. We mainly measured which chair they chose – next to the neutral actor, or next to the fearful/angry actor.
TAB: What did you observe?
HM: I set out to find out whether posture influences how you receive social signals from other people and how you react to them; and what mechanisms are behind this impact of posture – what happens in your brain when you adopt a certain posture and then see other people’s faces and need to respond to them, for example by approaching or avoiding them. I can’t say I got definitive answers to these questions. When people ask me today, “So does body posture influence how you see other people and how you react to them?” I usually say, “Maybe.”
Overall, if posture has an effect on how you see other people, it’s most likely to have that effect when you start interacting with other people. The clearest, most robust effect we saw was that posture has an effect on your decision to avoid people who have an angry face. It’s a very basic social interaction, but you do have to respond to a facial expression. What we observed is that people who close down, who have a constricted posture, tended to avoid the angry person more than people who adopted an expansive posture.
TAB: Can you conclude anything from that as to which is the better survival mechanism – avoiding or confronting?
HM: I think both postures have their purpose. It depends on the situation you use it in. If the person who’s angry is your kid, and he’s going to go crazy, the worst thing to do would be to run away. Sometimes you want to approach people and talk about what’s making them angry, or calm them down, or find out what’s wrong. Sometimes it’s better to confront – you know you can win the fight. And sometimes it’s better to avoid them. Anger and fear both exist for a reason, expansive and constrictive postures both exist for a reason, and they all have their purpose and they all make sense in the right situation.
TAB: So what was your takeaway from all this?
HM: What I mostly learned is that science is complicated – much more complicated than people imagine. You need much more than one study to get an answer to any question.
Another important thing I learned is that the science that’s published isn’t only influenced by how good or how interesting the findings are, but by many other human biases. Researchers are humans, and we have biases, for example, when we analyze data. We’re influenced by what other people have done before. And in everything we do, humans are looking for a reward. We need to survive in our jobs as scientists, and that’s going to drive certain behavior. So we want to make our findings as interesting as possible, and we need to publish as much as we can. The current publication and financing system really influence the science that’s out there. So you need to look at it all with a very skeptical mind.
TAB: And of course the media picks up on this research: there are reports coming out daily about which foods are bad for you, which type of exercise is best… and often these studies are completely contradicted by other studies further down the line. Given what you’re saying about the biases in scientific research, how can the average person navigate this info? “Coconut oil is great for your health!” “Eggs will kill you!” – what should you do when you see studies like this in the headlines?
HM: The very first thing is to be aware of the fact that science is complicated. Never freak out because of a single study published somewhere. Never make life decisions about what you’re going to eat from now on or which diet you’re going to follow based on one study.
In science, we do probabilities. We can never measure the effect of eating eggs on the whole of humanity. We can just look at a sample, and then calculate the probability of how the health of these people will develop in the next couple of years. This sample may be very similar to the general population, or it may not be. When we find a change in a particular health parameter, if it’s large enough, we assume it’s not just random but that it’s because these people ate eggs or did not eat eggs. This is why it’s always important to look at how many people a scientific study investigated, and how representative of the general public those people are, or how similar they are to you.
The more surprising the effect we find, the more motivated scientific journals and media outlets are to publish it, because this is going to bring them readers. But the more surprising findings are, the more unlikely it is that they’re true. The things that end up in science publications are already slightly biased towards what’s novel. Then the media selects the most surprising and novel ones to sell to the general public. If a study makes it into general media, there’s a high likelihood that it’s just a one-time, big-effect finding that may never be replicated. You need to be aware of that. If you want to take a decision based on a study you read, you have to get to a bigger picture, and that takes time. You can’t just read one or two or three studies.
Everything that’s alive is complex. So you need experts who review a particular area of research. The difficult question is, how do you recognize whether or not something comes from a real expert? This doesn’t mean science gives you a lot of wrong findings. It means it’s a long-term enterprise. It takes more than one study to find out the truth about anything.
* In these studies, I used tasks developed by my colleagues in the Social Cognition team in the Laboratory of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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