Lab Coats and Lies Affect Our Performance

    In a series of experiments, Proffitt et. al asked participants to write about either a major or trivial secret, and then look at a hill head-on. Those who’d written about the big secret rated the hill as looking steeper than those with the more trivial burden, implying that secrets leave us physically encumbered. The results remained consistent through the other experiments — those who thought about their secrets found it more difficult to do everything from throwing bean bags to carrying shopping bags.

     All this is part of a body of research on “embodied cognition,” or the idea that the body influences the mind. We’re used to thinking of the brain as the end-all-be-all of thought, but a host of studies shows that common metaphors may literally be true: Washing our hands makes us feel more pure morally, and taking a shower helps relieve guilt. Warm rooms make people “warmer” socially, and people feel closer socially, and people judge others as “warmer” or “colder” depending on the temperature of the drink they’re holding. 

    The metaphors don’t end here: apparently, opposing religions truly can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Researchers at the University of Illinois told 82 Christian students that they’d be rating two different drinks and taking a handwriting test. The participants tasted the drink, rated it. Then they copied either a neutral passage, a passage from the Koran or  a passage Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Done. They tried the “second” (read: same) drink, rated it; this time around, the participants who’d copied the Koran or Dawkins gave lower rankings to said “second” drink, while drink ratings from those who copied the neutral passage remained consistent. 

    There’s even “enclothed” cognition, which is basically the scientific version of “the clothes make the man.” In a Northwestern University study, students wearing either normal clothes or white lab coats performed the Stroop attention test. The students wearing lab coats made half as many errors on the critical trials.

    So, the (rather absurdly reductionist) takeaway: Metaphors are often literally true. Unburdening yourself of big secrets might make the physical world look more manageable. And wear a white lab coat to this week’s midterm.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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