Ron Friedman and Andrew Elliot gave dozens of students an impossible anagram to solve. Half the students were instructed to attempt the puzzle with their hands on their thighs, while the other students were told to sit with their arms folded. The thigh group only persevered for about 30 seconds on average, while the students with their arms folded struggled on for nearly 55 seconds.
A second experiment involved testing more students with anagrams that had multiple solutions. This time, the students with their arms folded came up with more solutions than the students sat with their hands on their thighs.
The students had been told the research was part of an investigation into whether arm movements aid problem solving, and none of them guessed the true purpose of the study.
Further analysis showed that the benefits of arm folding were not related to mood or comfort. Rather the researchers believe that over many years, the act of crossing our arms comes to be implicitly associated with perseverance, so that adopting that position activates a nonconscious desire to succeed. However, they cautioned that it was important to consider context when using arm folding to influence your behaviour. In social contexts, arm folding may carry different meanings in different cultures, and can lead people to feel more distant from others.
The new findings follow a wealth of previous research showing how the positions of our bodies and the expressions on our faces don’t just reflect how we are feeling, they can also influence our mood and behaviour. For example, smiling can cheer you up (pdf) and slouching can make you feel more helpless.
Friedman, R., Elliot, A.J. (2008). The effect of arm crossing on persistence and performance. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(3), 449-461. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.444