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Thinking Outside the Box - Conflict Between Mind and Body

  • Published: 2011-06-10 : Author: Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
  • Synopsis: New study shows physical and psychological ambivalence leads to expanded creativity and open-mindedness.

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Conflict Between the Mind and Body Helps People Think Outside the Box.

New study shows physical and psychological ambivalence leads to expanded creativity and open-mindedness.

Think of the old saying, "grin and bear it." Can forcing a smile really have a positive impact on how people see the world, even to the point of becoming more open-minded? According to new research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, the answer is yes. The study shows that when bodily expressions are in conflict with one's actual feelings - such as recalling a happy memory while frowning or listening to sad music while smiling - people become more likely to accept and embrace atypical ideas.

Kellogg researchers Adam Galinsky and Li Huang suggest that this "mind-body dissonance" sends a signal to the brain that something is out of sync and prompts it to break its normal cognitive boundaries.

"Our minds are trained to operate within a 'normal' mental framework, constricting our perspectives to fit within a defined set of standards," said Huang, a doctoral student in management and organizations at Kellogg. "Mind-body dissonance, when our thoughts and bodily expressions diverge, sheds lights on how internal conflict can be beneficial for breaking unwarranted mental sets and solving problems creatively."

To test their theory, Galinsky and Huang developed simultaneous mental and physical coordination tasks to observe how people think unconventionally when mental and physical states are not in harmony. In "happy-face" conditions, participants were asked to hold a marker using their front teeth only. In "sad-face" conditions, participants were instructed to place two golf tees on their foreheads, and make the tips of the golf tees touch by raising and squeezing the inner corners of the eyebrows. The tasks were designed to engage the muscles used for smiling and frowning, respectively. While completing either of these physical tasks, the researchers asked participants to recount and describe an experience, happy or sad, or to listen to happy or sad music.

After performing these coordination tasks, the researchers asked participants to rate how well objects fit into several categories. For instance, objects like a bus, an airplane and a camel were choices for the vehicle category. For the clothes category, the choices were a skirt, shoes and a handbag. Those who adopted facial expressions that conflicted with their mental state, compared to those whose mental and bodily states were consistent with each other, were more likely to see atypical objects such as a camel and a handbag as common prototypes of vehicles and clothing, respectively. The researchers argue mind-body dissonance promoted this atypical choice.

Another experiment replicated the effect of mind-body dissonance by creating an internal conflict between mentally experienced power and power-related postures. Some participants were made managers and other subordinates. While learning of their roles and subsequent tasks, participants either constricted their posture by sitting on their hands while slouching and leaning forward (a low-power posture) or expanded their postures by sitting upright while spreading out their limbs (a high-power posture). Again, mind-body dissonance led people to embrace atypical prototypes. Those who were assigned to play a high-power role while sitting in a constricted posture or were assigned to the low-power role while sitting in an expansive posture saw the camel and the handbag as typical representations of their categories, more so than those who experienced a match between roles and postures.

These experiments demonstrate that mind-body dissonance leads participants to expand their definitions of what they consider to be "normal."

However, while Galinsky and Huang found that mind-body dissonance produced broader categories, it also decreased the participants' short-term memory. In the final experiment, participants were presented with 18 pieces of random information about a fictional character. Afterward, they were given a memory recall test. On average, participants found this task more difficult to complete and remembered fewer pieces of information when their physical and mental states were out of sync.

"By forcing our bodies to act outside of these bounds, people can increase their capacity to expand their thinking and embrace ideas that may go against the norm," said Galinsky, Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management. "But it is also a lot of mental work and therefore we may not have the mental resources to encode all the information around us."

The study, "Mind-Body Dissonance: Conflict Between the Senses Expands the Mind's Horizons," will be published in a forthcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.

For more information about the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, visit

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