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We’ve long known that body language communicates nonverbal messages and influences how we’re perceived by others, especially in the workplace. New research shows that our posture also affects how confidently we behave and even our hormone levels. Striking a powerful pose increases confidence, reduces stress and boosts testosterone. Conversely, a submissive posture or nervous habits like twirling a ring can have the opposite effect. We explore the latest research on nonverbal communication in the workplace.
- Sukhvinder Singh Obhi Cognitive neuroscientist; Associate Professor, Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, Canada
- Howard Ross Author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Howard Ross is with us. We've long known that our body language communicates nonverbal messages. And those messages influence how we're perceived by others, including in the workplace. New research shows that how we stand and how we sit actually affects not only how we're seen by others, but also how confidently and assertively we behave. Our posture can even influence our hormone levels. Striking a powerful pose increases our confidence, reduces stress and actually boosts testosterone.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIConversely, a submissive posture or nervous behavior, like twirling a ring, can have the opposite effect. It can make us less confident, less effective. This latest study joins a growing body of research showing the power of the mind-body connection. And joining us to discuss it is Howard Ross, the principal of Cook Ross, author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." Howard, great to see you again.
MR. HOWARD ROSSYeah, you, too, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Ontario, Canada, is Sukhvinder Singh Obhi. He is a cognitive neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University. Sukvinder, thank you for joining us.
DR. SUKHVINDER SINGH OBHIThanks very much, Kojo. I have to say the line's not particularly good. So forgive me if I mishear something.
NNAMDIWell, we're hearing you well and we're hoping that you will be hearing us just as well. I'll start with you, Howard Ross. There's new research around the importance of body language and posture. Can you talk a little bit about the study and, well, more importantly, what struck you about it?
ROSSYeah, it is interesting. I mean, we've known for a long time that body posture impacts people's moods, it impacts people's performance. I mean, you know, I remember hearing, oh, gosh, you know, 20 years ago, people talking about how if you're depressed, sit up and stand up straight. And it's very hard to maintain that depression when you're like that. Obviously, not in all cases, but in a lot of cases. And I've always found that to be true. And a lot of the research about, of course, what we've heard about body language, is about how other people perceive us.
ROSSYou know, how other people see us when we've got particular positions. And in a workplace this is significant. You know, people who come in and, you know, appear to be confident and, you know, position themselves in particular ways do affect other people. But some of the most interesting research and, you know, some of it came out of the work that Amy Cuddy is doing at Harvard Business School and other places, is showing that the way we position our bodies actually begins to create some impact on our system, our hormonal system.
ROSSSo for example, when we stand in what Amy calls power positions, you know, the one position she uses she calls the Wonder Woman position. You know, standing with your hands on your hips. And mostly positions that take up a lot of space, that open up a lot of space, that cortisol levels -- which produce stress of course -- tend to go down, testosterone levels go up. So we tend to have almost like a jolt to our system. And it really poses an interesting inquiry into what we might be able to do to being to shift our moods at times.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Did you know that how you stand or sit can affect your stress levels, even your hormones? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. We're also joined by Dr. Sukhvinder Singh Obhi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University. Sukhvinder, this research indicates that how you stand or sit can actually affect performance and effectiveness, even later after you have changed positions. Can you talk about that a little?
OBHIAbsolutely, yeah. I mean I think there's a -- what's interesting about this research -- and several other studies that have come out over the last few years -- is that there is this link now, a pretty strong link, between behavior and then physiological changes. And some of the physiological changes, as you say, can last a long time. I think in this particular study it was on the order of several minutes. But there have been studies, as well, that have found that exposure, for example, to someone else's, not necessarily posture, but, for example, facial expression, can change behavior even 24 hours later when you interpret kind of novel stimuli.
OBHISo this idea that some of the effects can be long lasting is not surprising. There's a lot more to it, I always say. I mean it's interesting when a study comes out and people start to talk about it and get quite excited. I think we have to bear in mind that, you know, human behavior and cognition emotion are extremely complex things. And some of these demonstrations are really nice, but I think we should sort of warn people to not to make too firm conclusions based on sort of one or two studies. That's what I would do off the bat.
NNAMDIThere's a lot of research around posture and how it relates to dominance and submissiveness. But this research shows that our posture even affects our hormone and stress levels. How is that possible?
OBHIYeah, I mean, it's absolutely possible. I think this falls into the realm of a very kind of burgeoning field of research in the area of what's called embodied cognition. It's basically an area of study that talks about how our behavior is rooted in the body. And if we have, for example, someone making one of these expansive postures that Howard mentioned, and that they used in the study, it's not surprising at all that you get activity in the brain.
OBHISo, for example, taking the examples of emotion again, we know, for example, that when you make an emotional expression like a smile, there's quite an influential theory of emotion that says, well, the reason you actually feel happy about it and you have the emotion of happiness, is actually because of the feedback that gets sent back to your brain from the facial musculature that's actually involved in the smile. And that feedback actually gets processed in the part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex.
OBHIAnd it then kind of unlocks this chain of events that can lead to the emotion of happiness. So in some senses, it's not that you smile because you feel happy, necessarily, but you feel happy because you smile. And I think that is quite a powerful notion. And it's analogous to the power study that you've already talked about. It's a very interesting area of research and it'll be interesting to see over the next sort of decade or so what we can get out of this in terms of the extent to which different aspects of information processing are embodied.
ROSSYes. Sukhvinder, I know that years ago I remember I was with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. And he was teaching mediation techniques. And he was talking about how smiling in a particular way, having a smile on your face, actually contributes to the ability to access meditation. I know that Amy also talks about the fact that keeping a pencil or a pen in your mouth in a particular position for a while could do the same thing, can send those kinds of signals. Is that kind of what you're referring to?
OBHIAbsolutely, yeah. That's exactly what I'm referring to. In fact, one of the sort of most highly cited examples of this idea is an experiment in which they actually got people to hold a pen in their mouth, and actually not to facilitate a sort of smile, but to actually block people from imitating facial expressions. And in that study what they find is that people are impaired at judging other people's emotional expressions. So without the ability to, if you like, mimic the facial expressions of somebody else, you actually end up being impaired in making judgments about them.
OBHIAnd the same thing operates, actually, when you look at the literature on postural mimicry. So this study by -- I think it was Connie and colleagues, looking at the effects of postural and cortisone testosterone, is even more interesting when you think about it in the context of a real social interaction in the workplace, where you could have, for example, you know a dominance hierarchy, which, obviously, are common in the workplace. But the interesting part of it is how other people then respond to the posture that you've displayed.
OBHIAnd there's quite interesting research on that, as well, which we can talk about.
NNAMDIWe'll get into that very shortly, but I wanted to talk about power poses and submissive postures. This particular research talks about those things. What would be considered a powerful pose and what's submissive? Sukhvinder, I'll start with you.
OBHIWell, generally speaking the power poses have all been described as poses that increase the amount of space that you take up, if you like. So the, you know, spreading your arms out, leaning back on a chair, spreading your arms out, making yourself as big as possible, would be classed as a kind of power pose. A similar type of thing, as Howard mentioned, the Wonder Woman pose, where you've got hands on hips. And again, it's sort of this expansive idea.
OBHIIn contrast, any kind of pose where you are reducing the amount of space that you take up, so constricting yourself, bringing your limbs in towards your body, would be more of a submissive pose. And it's quite -- I mean it intuitive, if you think about over our evolutionary history, that these types of poses are linked, you know, probably directly to the sorts of confrontations we might have had when we were living in small groups and where there was, for example, a challenge to somebody's dominance in a group. These are the kinds of things that would come up. So I think a lot of it stems from that.
OBHIAnd it seems that we're very sensitive to these cues, even in the modern world, you know, where we've hopefully evolved to the point where we don't always fight each other in the workplace, there are these really low-level cues that we seem to be -- or at least the brain seems to be very receptive to. That's a fascinating area of study, really.
NNAMDIWell, you should know, Sukhvinder, that Howard Ross is 6' 5" tall, he's laying back in his chair with his hands behind his head, causing me to want to crawl under the table. I don't understand what's going on.
ROSSYou know, it is interesting, Sukhvinder, when you talk about this in the workplace. Because I know that I've seen, you know, having done consulting in workplace environments for 30 years, and I've seen so many cases of this. And I'm sure lots of other people have. Where you see the -- what we might call the battle of the alpha male -- particularly it tends to show up. You know, and you see somebody come into an environment who has that kind of posture and that kind of bearing to themselves. And one would think sometimes that people would mirror each other.
ROSSBut, in fact, what ends up happening, it often feels like, is until it's clear who the dominant one is there's sort of a stress in the environment. Then at some point people generally seem to sort of see that power to that person and take a less dominant role. And you see it often at other times when somebody is particularly dominant and it shows in their posture. And then when they're with their boss, they seem like a completely different person, physically.
OBHIOh, yeah, it makes perfect sense. I mean, actually, on that point, there's some really interesting research. It's not that new anymore. It's probably 10 years old now. I think it came out of Stanford, where they look to this idea of postural mimicry, and specifically in respect of dominance and submissiveness. And they found that actually when people are engaged in an actual interaction -- and this is why I said I think is the really interesting part of this whole thing -- it’s not just the link between power poses and hormones, but when you actually put it into personal context.
OBHISo they found that actually when people are involved in an interpersonal interaction and one of them strikes a power pose, what you typically get is you actually get the other one striking the complimentary pose, which is the submissive pose, and vice-versa, actually. If there person strikes a submissive pose, you're more likely to get the other person striking the dominant pose. And that is thought to lead, in this research they were talking about, to really a more smooth interaction. Because, clearly, if you've got two people striking dominant poses, you've immediately got kind of conflict.
OBHIWhich you'd want to minimize in the workplace context, right? So it's quite interesting because the other prediction they could have made in that study -- and I think they did make -- was that according to a lot of the research that's out there on mimicry, you'd expect people to do the same thing. So when you're -- you know, this is kind of this common notion, that when you're interacting socially with somebody and you make gestures or facial expressions, bodily movements, the other person tends to mimic them and you do the same for their movements.
OBHIThat's called mimicry or the chameleon affect, as it's been coined. So based on that prediction, you'd expect the same kind of thing, but it's really interesting that once you put a hierarchy in it, it's almost like someone comes in, claims the dominant position, and in order to make everything smooth from there, the other person, as you said, almost secedes powers and goes into a kind of submissive role. But what's even more interesting is that you can, you know, human beings are so sophisticated, that that doesn't necessarily reflect the truth of what's going on.
OBHISo there could be tactical deception, somebody may well strike a submissive pose, not really wanting to be submissive, if you know what I mean, but more so to manipulate the situation. And I think there's a lot more research to be done there. So I don’t want to speculate too much on it, but tactical deception would come into this, as well, that higher level of sophistication. It's just as simple as copying or not copying.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be providing an update on the ongoing situation at the Washington Navy Yard with WAMU 88.5 reporter Patrick Madden. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation. Now, we are going to be joined by phone by WAMU 88.5 reporter Patrick Madden, who has an update at the situation at the Washington Navy Yard. It is my understanding, Patrick, that D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Mayor Vincent Gray have had a news conference.
MR. PATRICK MADDENThat's right, Kojo. It wrapped up about 15 minutes ago. And here's the latest information, police say one of the -- there is a shooter that is confirmed dead in the Navy Yard Building, but there are potentially two other people. Two other shooters that they're looking for, but Chief Lanier was careful to clarify these are potentially two other people. And one of them is described as a white male in a khaki/tan military uniform, with a green beret. The other is a black male around 50 years old in more of an olive style military drab.
MR. PATRICK MADDENThese are the two individuals that police say they are looking for. So this is very much an active investigation. Where I am right now is still on lockdown. There are police, there was an armored vehicle before -- it's definitely on lockdown now, obviously, as police continue to not only figure out what's happened in the Navy Yard Building, how many fatalities, how many wounded, but also that there are potentially two other people that they are looking for.
NNAMDIAnd if that is the case, then indeed this lockdown will likely continue indefinitely.
MADDENExactly. And everything around here, I mean, if it wasn't for the media, this would be a ghost town where I am right now, but there are probably 100 different reporters and news trucks here, along with all the police officers. And it was a pretty -- it's been a hectic situation all morning. There have been cars going back and forth. It started to slow down, I'd say, right after that press conference with the chief. She says she's going to brief us again in two hours to give us more information, but, again, I mean, the real news from that press conference was that there are potentially two other shooters that police are looking for.
NNAMDIAnd could Chief Lanier give you any information at all about any of the individuals, especially the Metropolitan Police Officers who may have been shot at and wounded?
MADDENShe says that the MPD officer that was shot is in -- I believe it was -- is in stable condition and is undergoing surgery right now. That's the latest on the officer that was shot. And there were obviously multiple injuries and multiple victims that were in the Navy Yard Building. I mean, I spoke with several witnesses who described what happened this morning, very harrowing experience. They described someone opening fire and pretty much a very frantic rush to get out of the building.
NNAMDIAnd so there are people -- they are still in lockdown at the Navy Yard, which presumably means that they are still probably in lockdown at nearby D.C. public schools, Patrick, correct?
MADDENThat's correct. There is a list of schools that are on lockdown right now, that are in this area. And again, I don't think anything's going to change until police can figure out whether there are two more shooters and where these two shooters are.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, President Obama was also addressing this issue at a news briefing today. Sometime during the course of this broadcast you will hear a clip of what he had to say about it. But WAMU 88.5's Patrick Madden is also on the scene and we'll probably be getting updates from you. Patrick, thank you so much.
MADDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe return now to our conversation on posture and power in the workplace, with Howard Ross. He is the principal of Cook Ross and the author of, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." And Dr. Sukhvinder Singh Obhi is a cognitive neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University. Howard, you point out that some of the power poses that we have been discussing and describing and that you have been taking at this table might communicate something different in a woman than a man.
ROSSYeah, well, at first we have, based on our societal gender expectations, people have various different responses to men and women in power. We're much more viscerally used to seeing men in power positions. We relate to men in power positions. And we've known this for a long time. We've known, for example, that a man who kicks tail and takes names and makes things happen in an organization, is the kind of leader we need around here, but a woman who does that often has a certain "B" word associated with her.
ROSSAnd the same thing can be true when people appear to have power. And that is that we can see them as being powerful, respond to them as being powerful, but how we respond to the power in them may be different depending upon gender association. So for example, if I’m used to thinking of men in powerful positions and used to deferring to men in powerful positions, and you come in and you assume that position and I yield, as Sukhvinder was saying before, you know, I take the more passive position or the more submissive position, then I may see that as a sign of respect.
ROSSI may turn to you and turn to whatever you have to offer as a sign of respect. If a woman comes in and assumes that position, and I similarly slip into that submissive posture -- let's say she's my boss or somebody I'm looking to, I may have resentment for that and feel emasculated by that because of the fact that she was a woman assuming that position. So the same energy dynamic is there, but my reaction to that energy dynamic, my mood about it or my opinion about it may change.
NNAMDIAnd not all body language translates the same way across cultures. What do we need to think about when it comes to how we express ourselves nonverbally?
ROSSWell, that's whole other point. You know, a lot of the work that people have done around body language, comes very much from a singular cultural model, so that we may be, you know, if we're Americans, for example, we have an expectation of people from our culture may do certain things. I mean it gets back to simple things like expressions, you know, bodily expressions. Nodding your head to say yes, which, you know, in India, is not so clear when people say yes because their head turns slightly side to side in certain parts of India, just as an example.
ROSSOr the symbols, you know, the okay sign that we use, that's offensive in other cultures and things like that. So similarly what we're used to seeing from body language may be different depending upon the cultural model we're in.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Are you aware of what your posture and body language are communicating in work situations? Have you ever been bothered by someone's unconscious behaviors at work? What did you do about it? 800-433-8850. If you have called, stay on the line. We will soon get to your calls. You can also send us an email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDISukhvinder, in your own research, you've looked at the psychology around power and how it might affect our ability to empathize. Can you talk a little first about your starting point…
NNAMDI…the mirror system? What is it and why is it important?
OBHISure, yeah. I mean, there's this very interesting discovery that happened in the early 1990s. And it was actually discovered in the monkey brain to start with. And this is the notion of mirror neurons. And most people now have probably heard of them in the public arena because they've been talked about quite a lot. But essentially what these are, are neurons that respond when I do something and neurons which respond when I see somebody else doing the same thing.
OBHISo that's where you get the term mirror from. They seem to mirror other people's actions, as if they were your own. And what that does, is it gives you a scientifically plausible system in the brain that could be involved in, if you like, putting you inside someone else's head, to figure out why they're doing what they're doing. And the reason for that is, if you have activation of representations in your brain that would be involved in performing a certain action, you also have, by virtue of the fact that brain representations are connected to one another, you also have access to the intention that would usually activate that action representation, if you like.
OBHISo when you watch someone else doing something and you get activation of the action, you also potentially get activation of what your intention would be if you were doing the action. And that very rudimentary level of kind of, if you like, mind reading or as psychologists call it, theory of mind, could be quite important. The mirror system, basically, you know, has been discovered in humans now. I said the original work was in monkeys, but we know there's a similar system in human beings. And many people think of it because of this idea of putting you in someone else's head, as a precursor to empathy.
OBHISo we kind of took that idea and wondered whether or not power -- because there are these documented effects of being powerful and being associated with kind of being less in tune with other people around you and devoting less attention or resources, for example, to processing other people around you. We wondered whether there could be a basis in the activity of the mirror system in those feeling powerful versus those feeling powerless, in how they deal with other people and view other people.
OBHISo what we did is we basically used a quite well-established priming technique, where we asked people to write a short episode about a time from their own life when they felt as if they had held power over somebody else. That basically has the effect of reactivating networks in their brain that were active during the original episode. So to a closest approximation as possible, we're actually putting them back in that powerful state. On the other side of things, we had another group of people who wrote the opposite kind of episode. They wrote about a time when someone else has had power over them, which then makes them sort of take up this powerless mental state.
OBHIAnd then what we had them do is simply watch a sort of benign video of another person squeezing a rubber ball between their index finger and thumb, so really a non-loaded kind of video, just a very simple action. And we measured, using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is a brain stimulation technique -- we measured the excitability in the motor areas of the brain --which are thought to be a sort of proxy measure of mirror activity -- while people watched the videos.
OBHIAnd what we found, which was very interesting, was that people that were feeling powerful, actually showed less activity when they were watching other people acting, than people who had been in kind of a neutral group, where they hadn't been primed with power. Whereas, conversely, people who were feeling powerless exhibited greater activity. So it was almost as if, when you feel powerless you're more in tune, your brain resonates, your mirror system is more active when you watch other people. And the complete opposite is true when you feel powerful. And that fits quite nicely with what we know from social psychology about how powerful people sometimes behave around their peers or definitely around their subordinates.
NNAMDIAnother aspect of this, Howard, is that a lot of what we try to do nowadays, is to get people to understand one another's differences. How might that complicate things, given what we've just been learning about the mirror system?
ROSSWell, it's interesting because when you look at -- at least my research. And by the way, Sukhvinder, I am not a neuroscientist. It's a hobby of mine I would have to say. So I yield to you about this. But my research has shown that, for example, when we look at theory of mind, when we look at this mirroring system that there are two components of it. There's one component which is how much can I tap into what you're thinking? How much can I sense what you're thinking? And then, of course, the other is what's my intention with that?
ROSSSo when we couple a strong theory of mind with positive intent, for example, we get empathy. You know, I sense what you need and I want to provide that for you. I feel what you're feeling. I feel your pain, so to speak. When we couple that with negative intent, of course, is where you get people who are actually able to manipulate people quite insidiously because I know what you're going to react to. I know how you're going to respond. Therefore I pull the strings that have you do what I want to do or even to make you feel smaller.
ROSSAnd so it's interesting in that regard. The other thing that we know is that when we're looking at the research that we've been doing in unconscious bias, a very interesting dynamic, which is that when people are exposed to the fact that they've revealed bias, some of the researchers -- Matthew Lieberman at UCLA who is doing a lot of this work right now, a social psychologist out there -- and what they're finding is that people who have a high level of self esteem actually are less likely to take in that data. In other words, if you show me, Kojo, some evidence that I seem to be exhibiting bias out there that I don’t know about, and I have a strong sense of self esteem, I'm much more likely to self-justify that, find some way to, you know, explain that away to myself, rather than to feel bad about it or do something about it.
ROSSWhereas people who have a lower sense of self esteem are actually more likely to take that and integrate it and look at what they need to do to fix that. So, you know, the notion of confidence, necessarily being really great for everybody in every circumstance may be questionable. It may very well be that there are times when having a less confidence is healthy for us.
NNAMDIYeah, because what I extrapolate from what Sukhvinder and then you have been saying is that people who are according to his test are powerful, seem to be less interested in what other people are doing or what other people are feeling, than people who don't feel that powerful. But I do have to go to the telephones. So here is Cindy Ann, in Alexandria, Va. Cindy Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CINDY ANNYes. Thank you so much. This has been absolutely fascinating. My background, my spine collapsed when I turned 30. So I've had a lot of spinal problems. So to me posture is paramount. And looking at posture and how it affects us, I think it's very, very important to understand that how we reflect and how we share with other people -- it takes seven seconds to make that first impression. But for people to realize that their expression of posture is an expression of their inner attitude. And could you address some of that? And also, how would you reflect on following the chain of command, say in the military setting here, using posture and not to dominate, but to show respect?
ROSSWell, first of all, I just, Cindy Ann, I want to say that, you know, when you say that it takes seven seconds for us to form a first impression, it's actually, we're not realizing, that it's far less than that. You know, for example, I think, Kojo, you probably remember when we did a show on politics a number of months ago. And I was talking about a story that a guy -- I believe it was Alexander Todorov at Princeton, that did a study where they show people images of political candidates, congressmen, senators, governors. And they showed people the images of the competing candidates for literally one second and then took it off.
ROSSAnd people were able to predict with 70 percent assuredly who was going to win the election based on one second image. So Nalini Ambady at Tufts has done a lot of work for what she calls thin-slicing, these instant sort of images that we have that we get. So that is important for us to recognize. This happens very, very quickly. We get this first impression and probably what happens is the amygdala sends a quick, you know, signal to the limbic system, identifies friend or foe. Usually, if the person is very different from us we sort of start from foe and work backwards. And then we determine, at that point, that reference -- now if the person feel -- you know, we even use language that’s in appropriate.
ROSSWe say sometimes, something about that person I like, when we meet somebody for three or four seconds. It would probably be more appropriate to say, something about me likes that person. That there's something that person triggers in us, a memory, a sense. And we may never know what that is. It may be their smell, the tenor of their voice, something in the colors they're wearing, something in their posture, any number of other things that reminds us of something or stimulates that sense safe or not safe.
NNAMDICindy Ann, thank you very much for your call. And Cindy Ann mentioned the situation that we have been covering, going on at the Washington Navy Yard. You should know that President Obama has had a news briefing on the issue. He pledges to follow the situation until suspect or suspects are apprehended. Here's what he had to say.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAI've been briefed by my team on the situation. We still don't know all the facts, but we do know that several people have been shot and some have been killed. So we are confronting yet another mass shooting. And today it happened on a military installation in our nation's capitol. It's a shooting that targeted our military and civilian personnel. These are men and women who were going to work, doing their job, protecting all of us. They're patriots and they know the dangers of serving abroad, but today they faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn't have expected here at home.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMASo we offer our gratitude to the Navy and local law enforcement, federal authorities and the doctors who have responded with skill and bravery. I've made it clear to my team that I want the investigation to be seamless so that federal and local authorities are working together. And as this investigation moves forward we will do everything in our power to make sure whoever carried out this cowardly act is held responsible.
NNAMDIThat's President Obama speaking on the ongoing situation at the Washington Navy Yard, where the police chief of the Metropolitan District of Columbia has said there are two other people who are suspected of being involved in this incident. So the Navy Yard remains on lockdown. The U.S. Navy has indicated that if you're looking for information about your loved ones, you can call 202-433-6151 or 202-433-9713.
NNAMDIReturning now to our conversation about posture and power in the workplace. Sukhvinder, you say there's been a lot of emphasis on consciousness and what we are aware of and less on the unconscious. Yet, the more we study the brain the more evidence shows how much our behavior is guided by the latter, the unconscious or subconscious.
OBHIThat's right. Actually, there's a very interesting interplay, I think between conscious processing and unconscious processing. And recently there's been a lot of work suggesting that, you know, the real drivers of behavior -- although (unintelligible) anecdotal experiences that, hey, the only thing that matters to me is what I'm conscious of. In fact, it's almost the opposite, where it seems to be our behavior is massively driven by unconscious cues. So we are remarkably sensitive, if you like, to things like micro expressions, like very, very quick cues in the environment and that we actually take things from.
OBHIAnd as Howard mentioned a few minutes ago, initial appraisal can take place very, very quickly based on sort of a limbic response to the stimulus that confronts us, whatever that may be. It's an ongoing debate. I don't really think we're in a position to say too much. And this is sort of my scientific perspective now. It is true that you can demonstrate a lot of interesting effects on behavior that seem to operate or originate at the unconscious level. It's also true that in other cases, consciousness does kick in and have a role.
OBHISo I think this is one of the great mysteries of the brain for the 21st century, sort of going forward, is to try and understand exactly what the role of both these types of process are. I think what can be said quite safely though, is that we've tended to overestimate the influence of conscious processes. And correspondingly, under estimate the influence of unconscious processes. But I think the danger is that kind of popular media and commentators may sometimes make too much of that, given the data that we have, and basically start to say, hey, look, the concept of conscious control, for example, is illusory. It's an epiphenomenon.
OBHIAnd that might be true, but I think at the moment we -- and having done research on conscious calls or, you know, consciousness and causality, this is kind of one of my areas. And I've very kind of careful as to how we interpret the data. I think just because you can show that unconscious forces have an effect, doesn't necessarily mean that conscious forces don't have an effect. And just because conscious forces have an effect, vice versa, it doesn't mean that unconscious forces aren't important. So discovering what the balance of those two is in behavior is a key challenge, it think, for neuroscience.
NNAMDIHoward, this relates to the topic of your last book, which focused on our unconscious biases.
ROSSYeah, and actually I’m just contracted to write a new book called, "Everyday Bias," which is going to be specifically focused on that, Kojo. And you know, there are a couple things about this that are really interesting. One is that we trick ourselves, sometimes without even realizing it, quite automatically in the mind. And so when we have the unconscious kinds of responses that Sukhvinder's talking about, often they're very rapidly followed by a justification in our mind consciously. So let's say you and I meet, for example, and I have a visceral sort of something that gets turned up, but I'm not even aware of it, something turns on, quickly my mind starts to find, what is it about this guy that I don't like?
ROSSAnd I give myself that information to justify the feeling that I have. So the way we think we approach people is by looking and evaluating them and then determining whether we like them or not. But in reality, it may be reversed. In reality, we may start with that visceral feeling, and then the mind gathers the evidence to support it. Now, one of the reasons for this is because we have a culture that worships at the altar of rationality and consciousness. I mean, it probably goes back to Plato, 2500 years ago, you know, who taught us that the rational mind was the chariot to your holding the raging emotions in place.
ROSSBut if you think about our language, are you sure that was rational? You're not being very rational about this. You know, you're kind of being irrational about that. We have a value that we place on the rational being more valuable than the emotional or the visceral. And as a result of that, we've underplayed and undervalued how much those visceral and reactive, often unconscious, feelings are driving our decision making.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left, but, Sukhvinder, your research has gotten a lot of media attention. And while you were not focused in your study on the workplace, it's my understanding you're now considering developing workshops for executives. What interests you about exploring the business side of this?
OBHII just think it's actually very interesting. We've been thinking about this sort of thing for awhile. I mean there's a lot of really, really interesting psychology of power. What there isn't much of is much of a neuroscience of power. So we know a lot of things about how power affects behavior, but we don't yet know a lot of things about how that happens in the brain and what are the neural mechanisms that kind of contribute. So I guess the idea there was to try to fuse what we know from psychology with what we are beginning to understand about the brain, and what we know about sort of training approaches, so things like mindfulness training, and combine all those strands into a workshop of sorts that could be perhaps of value to executives or people in business organizations that do hold power, in the hope that it would help to kind of mitigate some of the potential negative consequences that power can sometimes have on behavior.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. You were going to add, Howard?
ROSSI was just going to say I know a consulting company that would love to talk with you about partnering on things like that, Sukhvinder.
NNAMDIAnd that company is called Cook Ross.
NNAMDIHoward Ross is a principal there and he's the author of, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." Howard, always a pleasure.
ROSSThanks, Kojo. And prayers to the people at the Naval Yard.
NNAMDISukhvinder Singh Obhi is a cognitive neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University. Sukhvinder Singh Obhi, thank you for joining us.
OBHIThank you. And also I'd like to pass my sympathies on to the people who've lost anyone or had any negative consequences of this bad event in D.C.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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