Are Smartphones Emasculating After All?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 27 2013 11:33 AM

Are Smartphones Emasculating After All?

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Could hunching over your phone sap your confidence?

Photo by WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

“Is Your iPhone Turning You Into a Wimp?” is the provocative title of an article from Harvard Business School’s Monday newsletter, Working Knowledge, and in it you can hear echoes of Sergey Brin’s contention that smartphones are “emasculating.” But this time, our smarter-than-thou technologies aren’t sapping our confidence by making us depend on them, like megalomaniacal red wheelbarrows. They’re changing the hormonal chemistry of our brains through our posture.   

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

I’ve written before on the Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy and power poses—I’ve even tried them out, at some cost to my dignity but gain to my dry-cleaning pickup skills. The idea is that certain body stances, such as standing with your legs apart and your hands on your hips, or opening up your chest area, bathe your cortex in testosterone, a hormone associated with assertiveness and the willingness to take risks. Meanwhile, they also reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. On the other hand, low power poses—crossing your arms over your chest, say, or bunching your shoulders—increase neural levels of cortisol and reduce testosterone, resulting in more stress and less confidence.

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How is this relevant to an afternoon frittered away in the company of cute pigs and Angry Birds? All that time spent hunched over a tiny screen might actually drain your confidence by forcing you into a low power position, according to a new study by Cuddy and Maarten Bos, a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard Business School. Bos and Cuddy asked 75 volunteers to perform a battery of tasks on one of four randomly assigned devices: an iPod touch (small), an iPad (a bit bigger), a Macbook Pro laptop (even bigger), or an iMac desktop (biggest).

According to Working Knowledge’s Carmen Nobel:

After five minutes of using the assigned device to take an online survey, each participant was given two dollars, along with the choice of keeping it or gambling it in a double-or-nothing gambling game with 50/50 odds. Next, the participant continued with a few other tasks and a final questionnaire, all on the assigned device.   

The question: Would people who played the betting game on bigger screens get a confidence boost from their superior, expansive posture? Would they be likelier to gamble?

The answer: Nope. (“The experiments showed no apparent effect on participants’ gambling behavior,” reports Nobel.) But the study wasn’t over. After the game, a researcher instructed each participant to wait while he (the researcher) fetched some forms. “If I am not here in five minutes, please come get me at the front desk,” he told them. Sneakily, though, he did not return after five minutes. He stood at the front desk for a maximum of 10 minutes, keeping track of whether and when each participant arrived to meet him. Nobel:

Of the participants using a desktop computer, 94 percent took the initiative to fetch the experimenter. For those using the iPod Touch, only 50 percent left the room.

What’s more, among those who did leave the room, the amount of time they waited to do so increased as the size of the screen decreased. For instance, while iPod Touch users lingered for an average of 493 seconds before going off in search of the researcher, the average desktop user stuck around for only 341 seconds.

What’s going on here? Bos and Cuddy hypothesized that it takes some time for the effects of good or bad posture to sink in, which would explain why screen width didn’t seem to influence betting behavior, but did correlate with how aggressively participants sought out the tardy experimenter. (Previous studies show that people are more likely to gamble after assuming high power poses and less likely after taking up low power poses.) I also wonder whether using a personal device like an iPod Touch or iPad made the research setting seem less formal. If so, perhaps the researcher’s charge not to wait around, but to “come find me at the front desk” translated as friendly politeness, rather than as another instruction. Or maybe working off a large monitor boosted confidence in a way that bypassed power posing entirely. (Think guys who feel like Kings of the Universe when they take the wheel of an SUV.)

Given how much time we spend interacting with various screens, though, it is helpful to know that lolling in front of a large glowing window could be preferable (from a confidence perspective) to hovering crampedly over a small glowing one. Unless you are a tardy experimenter, that is. Then maybe you should force all your test subjects to painstakingly twist out answers on an Etch-a-Sketch keychain—they’ll never bother you again.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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