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A Moving Approach

States that biology may affect our decision-making in totally unexpected ways. Report by John Cacioppo in 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,' Vol. 65, No. 1; His testing of William James' theory proposed in 1884 that arm movement might affect attitudes; Results of experiments.

Something as simple as tensing or flexing your arm may influence whether you like or dislike something, says Ohio State University psychologist John Cacioppo, Ph.D.

As long ago as 1884, psychologist William James theorized that arm movement might affect attitudes. Why arms? Because of the intimate association between arm movements and touch--a primary way of information gathering.

Cacioppo put the possibility to the test. In a set of experiments reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 65, No. 1), he showed subjects a series of Chinese ideographs while they pressed up on a table or exercise bar, flexing biceps.

They wound up liking these pictures more than a similar series shown while they were pressing down on a table or bar, extending the biceps. Just resting hands on the bar did not affect evaluations of the images, nor did watching the experimenter push on the bar.

It motion affects emotional attitudes, in real life the effect may be small-but the point is not. "There's a connection between biology and social thinking that hasn't been explored," says Cacioppo. "Things you know but don't know you know can influence you in subtle ways." It may operate when you don't know anything else about a situation.

Subtle motions may affect our decisions because we unconsciously associate arm flexion with approach--bringing food toward the mouth, for example--while arm extension is linked with rejection.

The effect may work to "get the ball rolling," says Cacioppo. "Do we like grocery displays better when we lean over to pick up a can? Do we have more fun at cocktail parties when we're holding something because it predisposes us to like the people we meet?"