February 19, 2015

Bodies affect decisions, says UChicago psychologist in new book

People’s bodies affect the choices they make just as much as their minds do, according to a new book by award-winning scientist and UChicago psychology professor Sian Beilock.

Beilock, who also serves as the University’s Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives, released her newest book, How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel on January 16. The book features studies on how the body functions in relation to the brain. In the book, Beilock argues that the human body plays a more important role than merely responding to brain messages.

“If we’re really going to understand our thinking and our ability to perform at our best, we have to focus outside the head on what’s happening in our bodies and on the environment as well,” she said. “The idea is that when we reach out and interact with objects, how easy it is to act on an object that sends subtle signals to our mind about how much we like it.”

One study that Beilock focused on involves “embodied cognition,” the body’s ability to help people think, behave, and feel through movement. In one of her more famous experiments, she asked participants to put one of two kitchen objects into a box. Beilock concluded that 63 percent of the participants picked the objects that were easiest to grab. She also discovered that the sizes and shapes of other objects affects whether or not people would choose to purchase them.

In addition to this discovery, Beilock discovered that shape matters, even if the objects are the same size. In another study, she tested a new design of a Coke bottle. The new bottles were still two liters in capacity but had a curvier shape so that they would be able to fit into people’s hands more easily. People ended up purchasing more Coke than before due to the bottles’ change in shape.

“My guess is that when businesses do consumer product testing—when they figure out whether someone likes a product or not—part of what might be going into that liking is how easy it is to act on it and manipulate it,” Beilock said.

Beilock anticipates that more studies like the ones in her book will be conducted in months to come.