Sunday, 15 July 2012


We all sit staring at computer screens for long periods during the day. In fact, some of us spend long periods in the evening staring at computer screens too! And as we sit there – getting on with whatever work needs doing, working through our e-mail, and occasionally checking Facebook to see what people with a life are doing – are we affecting our ability to crack on and really persevere with challenges? That’s a question that was answered back in 1984. And the answer is YES!

I’ve been to some organizations where people plug their laptops into workstations resulting in the screen being quite high up and the user having to then use a second keyboard and a mouse because they can’t reach the laptop’s keyboard in this position. They have to look up to do any useful work. I always thought this was a strange and unnatural way of working.

Most people I see working on their laptops have the laptops in front of them – on a desk at work, or on their lap elsewhere. I’ve also seen people using tablets (and iPads) in much the same way. They are hunched over their screens getting on with their work.

So what would happen if you took these two groups of people and then gave them some kind of test – something that measured their perseverence, their willpower to stay on-task. You might think that it wouldn’t make any difference, that there would be factors other than where their computer screen had been put determining how long these people wrestled with a problematic task.

That’s what John Riskind from Texas A&M university decided to investigate – the effects of posture on perseverence. One group was made to sit upright with their shoulders back and their heads up for three minutes. The other group was made to slump for three minutes, with stooped and hunched over backs and their heads dropped down. So the two groups spent three minutes in one of these two positions, pretty much like the two positions that laptop users can adopt.

After the three minutes, participants were sent to a different room and asked to solve several geometric puzzles that involved tracing over a diagram without lifting up the pencil. To make life a bit harder, some of the puzzles were impossible to solve. Riskind timed how long people persevered trying to solve the puzzle.

And he found that people who had been sitting up straight persevered trying to solve the puzzles for almost twice as long as the people who had previously been slouching.

In 2007, picking up on that earlier work, Hyung-il, Teeters, Wang, Breazeal, and Picard asked people to actually sit at a computer and work on a difficult problem. They divided their subjects into two groups – with one group using a monitor placed low down so they had to stoop, and the second group using a monitor that was placed slightly above their eye-line, so they had to sit up straight.

By now, you can guess the results of this second piece of research. People who sat up straight because their monitor was higher up persevered for longer than the people who slouched over their monitor.

What can we conclude from these two pieces of research? Well, if you want staff at your organization to be highly motivated, you need to ensure the centre of the screens they’re using is slightly above their eye level.

If you want to look up these two studies to make sure that I’m not making this all up (it’s not the 1 April blog!), Riskind published “They stoop to conquer: Guiding with self-regulatory functions of physical posture after success and failure” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (issue 47, pages 479-493, if you must know). The second study in 2007 was entitled “Stoop to Conquer: Posture and affect interact to influence computer users; persistence” and was presented at the 2nd International Conference on Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction, 12-14 September 2007 in Lisbon, Portugal.

It makes you wonder what else we should be doing to get the most out of the human-computer interface.

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