Does sitting at a big desk make you cheat?

(Mike Shapiro/For Capital Business)
(Mike Shapiro for Capital Business)

There could be an upside to being confined to that tiny cubicle at work: It may make you less likely to cheat.

A new study to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science finds that sitting at a large workspace or in a big seat in a car can make people feel more powerful — and therefore, lead them to act more deceptively.

The research, titled "The Ergonomics of Dishonesty," was led by Andy Yap of MIT (who conducted the research while at Columbia University) and Dana Carney of the University of California, Berkeley. With their collaborators, they found that in laboratory studies, people who were asked to reach around a larger desk pad to complete a project were more likely to cheat when completing subsequent tasks than the participants who sat at smaller spaces.

The study also included lab and field experiments that examined whether the size of a seat in a car could effect drivers' behavior. The two were indeed correlated: In the laboratory test, drivers sitting in "more expansive" seats while playing a video game were more likely to "hit and run" other drivers in the game and play it somewhat more recklessly. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the study authors' research assistants found that cars with larger drivers' seats were more likely to be double parked on city streets.

Whether or not you believe the size of your desk or the seat in your car could actually lead you to behave poorly, the new research does build off of other work around "power poses" that has been getting a lot of attention. Everyone from the New York Times to Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" book have featured prior research by Yap, Carney and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, who is also listed on the desk study and whose TED talk about power posing has been viewed more than 6 million times. Their research focuses on the link between our minds and the sort of open, expansive poses that both humans and animals use to express power — the same body language that's not inhibited when we're seated in larger workspaces or bigger driver's seats.

For instance, their research has found that "power posing" — leaning back with your feet propped up on a desk and your hands behind your head or lifting your chest and holding your head high — isn't just a way of expressing authority to others. It can actually prompt it physically. Striking a power pose for even two minutes can increase testosterone levels by about 20 percent and decrease cortisol by about 25 percent, leaving those who do so feeling more confident, less stressed and more willing to take risks.

So the next time you get ready to go in for an interview, maybe take a couple of minutes to puff out your chest and put your hands on your hips. And maybe be a little wary of the guy sitting on the other side of that massive desk.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · June 27, 2013