Fold your arms to boost your performance

Faced with a challenging task, try folding your arms – new research shows people persevere for longer when their arms are crossed.

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.

Link to earlier related Digest item.
Link to another related Digest item.

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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

7 thoughts on “Fold your arms to boost your performance”

  1. Cool story. I tried crossing my arms this morning while working on some hard homework I had in my biology class, I actually felt as if it worked. I wish I had known this before my midterms though 🙁 Found the link to this story over at < HREF="" REL="nofollow"><> and thought it was worth a read. It was! Thanks for sharing this advice.

  2. My interpretation is that folded arms make us more stubborn and thus sticking to the task longer, but i wouldn’t call it performance boost if you’r wasting your time in an impossible task. Meaning that there’s also a down side in that person loses his or her ability to make a good prediction in how much effort the task is worth and possibly also loses creativity in solving the task by sticking to the first chosen strategy.Good example of this is social interaction, where folded arms are normally considered as a negative sign. I mean who really want’s to talk to a person who’s already made up their mind and isn’t going to listen to you anyway?

  3. I have noticed that in therapy I fold my arms when I become tired or loose focus, which prompts me to sit up and pay more attention. I then adjust my arm position to look more relaxed because ovbiously sitting cross armed is too defensive in a therapeutic relationship. In other words, I wonder if the unconscious act of crossing arms is the body’s own wake up call?

  4. I’m very interested in body language and i think there’s a huge difference to your own psyche weather you keep your hands open (seperate from each other, possibly with palms showing), touching each other or folded. This is also an important social signal, though mostly unconscious one.Folding your arms makes you less suggestible to other persons points of views and thus can give you time to either rest or concentrate more on your own thoughts. Not necessarily a good way to go through the whole therapy session, but helpful at times and compleatly humane.

  5. With only two choices – folded arms versus hands on thighs – it doesn’t seem like that much can be concluded. Maybe hands on thighs was a less comfortable position in that experimental condition, so those people gave up sooner.

  6. Debbie: the experimenters measured comfort and mood. The students with their arms on their thighs were just as comfortable and in just as good a mood.

  7. What I wonder is how long does one need to fold one's arms to increase persistence? I may be working on a task that involves the use of my hands like writing when I want to increase my persistence. Should I just sit with my arms crossed for a few seconds or minutes? How Long?

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