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A while back, one of us and his daughters were going through some old toys, with the intention of donating some unwanted items to charity. During this exercise, the girls came across a doll that sometimes wobbled its head from side-to-side. Soon after dad picked up the doll and suggested that it could go to charity, the doll’s head started to wobble, as if to disagree with the possibility. The younger daughter concluded that the doll’s movements were evidence that it needed to stay, and that she really, really, really liked the doll. Alas, dad relented. We highlight this anecdote because it relates to the topic we want to cover in this post—the issue of how physical actions, like shaking one’s head, relate to attitudes. 

In Western cultures, nodding one’s head up and down and shaking one’s head from side to side have strong connotations. Nodding expresses agreement, while shaking expresses disagreement. Back in 1980, a clever study by Gary Wells and Richard Petty asked participants either to nod their head up and down or shake it from side to side while listening to an editorial over headphones. Participants believed they were in a study evaluating the quality of a new type of headphone. They were told that nodding would simulate the effect of jogging on earphone quality, whereas shaking would simulate the effect of cycling. But the authors were really interested in testing whether nodding and shaking would influence a person’s level of agreement with the content of the editorial they heard. The results showed that nodders did agree with the message more than shakers. This is compelling, as it suggests that bodily actions associated with a particular evaluative tendency (agreement versus disagreement) can influence how we process information.

It’s not only nodding and shaking that can impact evaluations: Another study found that people rate cartoons as funnier when they are read while gripping a pen between one’s teeth rather than with one’s lips (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988). This is thought to happen because gripping a pen with one’s teeth leads muscles to simulate smiling, whereas gripping a pen with one’s lips leads muscles to simulate frowning.

Other work has examined the effects of the flexion (contraction) of limbs versus their extension. When you grasp food in your hand and pull it toward your mouth, the action involves contracting or shortening numerous muscles in the hand to pull the fingers together and contracting muscles in your arm to bend it at the elbow. In contrast, if you press something away from you, you extend your fingers outward and extend the arm to a straight position.

John Cacioppo, Joseph Priester, and Gary Berntson (1993) cleverly demonstrated the effects of arm muscle flexion and extension on attitudes. In one experiment, participants were seated at a desk and reported whether they liked or disliked different Chinese ideographs (which were unfamiliar to the participants). In one condition, participants made their judgments while gently lifting their palms up against the bottom of the table. In another condition, participants gave their attitudes while gently pressing their palms down against the top of the table. After, participants sorted the ideographs from the least likeable to the most likeable. Remarkably, ideographs viewed during arm flexion were liked significantly more than ideographs viewed during arm extension.

More recently, researchers have tested whether there are physical manifestations of ambivalent attitudes. Ambivalence occurs when we hold mixed views about an attitude object; that is, we like and dislike the object at the same time. A team of Dutch researchers considered whether greater attitude ambivalence is associated with more exaggerated side-to-side physical movements. To test this possibility, Iris Schneider and colleagues (2013) conducted a study in which participants were first asked to stand on a Nintendo Wii Balance Board (which can be used to assess body movements). Some participants were then made to feel ambivalent, whereas other participants were not, and the researchers assessed the degree to which participants swayed from one side to the other. It was found that ambivalent participants showed greater side-to-side body movements (swaying back and forth) compared to non-ambivalent participants. In a subsequent study, the researchers tested the opposite causal path, and found that participants who were asked to move from side-to-side expressed greater subjective ambivalence compared to participants who were asked to move up and down.

These studies, and others like them, are important in a number of ways: First, they demonstrate how physical actions are linked with cognitive and emotional processes, helping us better understand the factors that influence how we think and feel. Second, it is interesting that the effects of physical movements go beyond mere liking to properties such as ambivalence, and that there is evidence for a bidirectional influence of physical movements and opinions. The research thus far is probably just the beginning for understanding the role of connections between body and mind in attitude formation and change.

We look forward to future research in this area.


Cacioppo, J. T., Priester, J. R., & Berntson, G. G. (1993). Rudimentary determinants of attitudes: II. Arm flexion and extension have differential effects on attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 5-17.

Schneider, I.K., Eerland, A., van Harreveld, F., Rotteveel, M., van der Pligt, J., van der Stoep, N., & Zwaan, R.A. (2013). One way and the other: The bi-directional relationship between ambivalence and body movement. Psychological Science, 24, 319-325.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768-777.

Wells, G. L., & Petty, R. E. (1980). The effects of overt head movements on persuasion: Compatibility and incompatibility of responses. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 1, 219-230.

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