Work Smarter: Unhunch! Slouching Is Making You Dumber

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This Week’s Insight: You ignored your mom’s admonitions to sit up straight, and if you saw this week’s lengthy feature in The Wall Street Journal about the health hazards of slouching, chances are you ignored that, too. Because even though you know slumping over your keyboard is doing all kinds of terrible things to your body, on the other hand – meh. It’s just so hard to sit up straight at a computer, and “do it for your health!’ is not always the best motivation for people to make real behavioral changes. 

But in an interview with Science of Us, San Francisco State psychologist Erik Peper shared some insights that might make you reconsider your humpback posture: Making your body smaller might be making your thoughts smaller, too. Peper argues that it’s harder to effectively solve problems creatively when you’re slouching.

An Explanation: You might have heard of power posing, the subject of social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s popular TED talk from last year; it’s the idea that good posture leads to more confidence and improved abstract thinking. Researchers who study the link between posture and behavior say less attention has been paid to the potentially negative impact of slouching. But recent evidence has linked slumping over with both a decrease in testosterone, which can impair cognitive performance, and an increase in the stress hormone cortisol.

Peper says that’s because poor posture signals to your body that you’re on the defensive, and that can cause problems at work when you’re trying to think clearly. “The moment you move into a defensive body position, it’s harder for you to do abstract problem solving or think of new, creative options,” Peper said. Creative thinking is helpful for knowledge workers today, but evolutionarily speaking, that kind of abstract, free-floating nonsense wasn’t super useful for early humans on the run from a predator, he explained.

So, What Now? There are a few easy things you can do to improve your posture at work, like making sure the top of your monitor’s screen is slightly below eye level and fixing your chair so your feet are able to easily rest on the floor and your knees are level with your hips, according to the Mayo Clinic. And/or you can do what I started doing a few years ago: In an effort to ward off a permanent Quasimodo look, a buddy and I agreed to send each other Gchats sporadically throughout the day that said nothing but “UNHUNCH!” It works! For a little while, anyway.