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Thought-Provoking Thursday: Why (Electronic) Size Matters

Headlines about the dangers of smart phones have become as common as thunderstorms in the summer: Your smart phone is making you fat! Wait, no, it’s making you sad! Scratch that — it’s just making you sick. Now, a new study out of Harvard Business School is adding another danger to the list: your smart phone could be making you less assertive.

According to a new working paper by post-doctoral research fellow Maarten Bos and HBS associate professor Amy Cuddy, the small size of a smart phone causes its user to hunch; in turn, that hunched posture causes the user to act less assertively — especially when compared to someone using a bigger device like a laptop or a desktop.

iStock_smartphoneIn the study, 75 participants were randomly assigned to one of four different electronic devices: an iPod Touch (which is the same size as an iPhone), an iPad, MacBook Pro laptop or iMac desktop. Once the participants had completed a gambling simulation and a survey, the researcher left the room, telling the participants to get him if he wasn’t back after five minutes. The participants didn’t know it, but this was part of the experiment — and the ones who worked on the laptop or desktop were more assertive in getting up to grab the researcher. After just 5 minutes and 41 seconds, 94 percent of the desktop users had gotten up to fetch the researcher; meanwhile, it took the smart phone users an average of 8 minutes and 13 seconds to get up and fetch the researcher. Even then, only 50 percent of the smart phone users had gotten up.

“If they didn’t come out after 10 minutes, we came and got them,” Bos said. “We set the cap at 10 minutes, because [we thought] no one would sit for that long, and we were wrong. People in the iPhone condition would sit for ten minutes. We were stunned by that.”

Bos said that the connection between assertiveness and posture can be traced all the way to the animal kingdom. “Humans and animals are very similar. Any powerful animal will expand its posture to display power,” he said. “If you expand, you will make your organs more vulnerable. If you’re more powerful, you can display vulnerability.”

What these results mean, in short, is that anyone who has ever hunched over a BlackBerry before the start of a meeting in order to look busy and important is actually doing themselves a disservice and making themselves meeker.

“If I walk into a room, I would just sit there and wait. I feel powerful enough that I don’t need to seem busy. People know that I’m busy,” Bos said. However, he acknowledged that not every employee has that luxury.

“It depends a little bit on where you feel you are in a food chain. If you just started in a company you may feel that you need to show off,” he said. “One of the most important things is that you’re aware of it. I could tell people not to use their smart phones before they go into a meeting, but they’ll do it anyway. They feel like they need to interact with their device.”

Bos said that if you do insist on sending emails up to the minute before a meeting starts, consider doing so on a tablet computer, or even a laptop: because of their sizes, using them will require less hunching. If you don’t have access to these devices, Bos suggests pulling from what you may have learned in yoga class.

“Right before you go into a meeting,” he said, “it might help to stretch out a little bit after you’ve used your phone.”

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