June 24, 2013 at 6:24 PM ET
Are people with laptops and big phones more assertive than iPod and feature-phone users? Or do assertive people just tend to get bigger screens? Surprisingly, a recent Harvard study found that using a bigger device actually does seem to affect people's behavior.
Maarten Bos and Amy Cuddy, researchers at Harvard's Business School, wanted to determine whether the type of device people use changes how they act around other people. Their previous research (PDF) showed that adopting certain "expansive" postures, body chemistry and behavior can be affected.
For instance, if you're leaning over a desk at someone with arms wide, you're more likely to act assertively than if you're sitting with legs and arms crossed in a chair. Of course, an assertive person would be more likely to take the "power position" than a less-assertive person. But the researchers' study showed that while postures like that would be taken by assertive people, others would become more assertive when adopting them as well.
So it makes sense to suppose that devices or other factors that make someone adopt a more closed, reserved posture would also influence them to act less assertively, while larger devices that allow an expansive posture would increase assertion.
Bos and Cuddy's research, "iPosture: The Size of Electronic Consumer Devices Affects Our Behavior," bore this out: 75 people were randomly assigned either an Apple iPod, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer on which to complete a task. Afterward, they were told to wait five minutes for the experimenter to return with their compensation for participating.
The twist (as there always is in psychology studies) was that the experimenter would not return for 10 minutes, and the researchers were measuring how long it took for the participant to come find the experimenter, if they did at all — a behavior classified as assertive.
The researchers found that participants who had used larger devices were nearly twice as likely to seek out the experimenter, and did it on average two and a half minutes earlier. There is a steady increase in the assertive behavior that correlates nicely with device size.
There was no effect, however, on participants' risk-taking behavior, measured by how they gambled in a short card-based game earlier in the experiment. The researchers thought that this could indicate that behavioral changes don't happen instantly, but take a few minutes to take effect.
The team is now working on a study that looks at how the position you take when you sleep could be affecting your personality. In the meantime, the researchers advise that people concerned about their assertiveness or passivity to pay more attention to their habits and posture, as they appear to have quite a strong effect on how you act.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.