This year’s Ignobel prize in psychology goes to Eerland et al for their study, which wasn’t so much about leaning to the left…as it was about using your Wii Fit for Science!

"Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller: Posture-Modulated Estimation," Anita Eerland, Tulio M. Guadalupe and Rolf A. Zwaan, Psychological Science, vol. 22 no. 12, December 2011, pp. 1511-14.

(Adorably, I only got to meet Tulio, who attended the ceremony, because Anita Eerland and Rolf Zwaan were off getting married…to each other. Tulio brought a photo of them to the ceremony though! Best wishes!)

The study itself is incredibly interesting, but it was also really fun to get to meet one of the authors, and ask WHY they did it in the first place. Because the real reason why people do particular studies is often very different from the reasons they give in their official paper introduction. Tulio Guadalupe told me that really, they were starting out in a brand new lab, and looking for inexpensive ways to try and change angles and perceptions in their experimental subjects. Normally, you have to buy a very expensive balance board for this that is custom made. But that was then, this is now, and the Wii Fit has a balance board!

The authors decided to see if they could use the Wii Fit balance board to test embodied cognition in their subjects. Embodied cognition is the idea that your bodily state can provide cues that influence the way you think. This may sound kind of silly, but there is some previous evidence that this is the case. For example, holding warm coffee can make you see people more positively.

In this case, the authors were interested in something called number line theory. Picture the numbers 1-10 laid out together. How are they laid out? Well, if you’re someone who learned math in a place where people read left to right, it’s easy to think of numbers on a number line, left to right, with 1 at the left and 10 on the right. While not everyone thinks this way, it can make picturing numbers easier. So if you’re thinking of a number line, you’re thinking of the smaller numbers to the left. Can the way you think of this number line influence how you estimate numbers? What if your position relative to the number line changes?

To examine this, the authors asked subjects to stand on a Wii Fit board. They were then asked to estimate a large number of things, from the height of the Eiffel tower to the number of grandchildren that Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands has. The participants were not expected to get any of the questions right. But they WERE expected to stand up straight. For 1/3 of the subjects, they were standing perfectly straight on the board. For another 1/3, they leaned very, very slightly to the right, 0.77cm. For the final 1/3, they leaned very, very slightly to the left. So if you leaned to the left you’d be “closer” to the smaller number side of the number line. The change was so slightly that none of the participants noticed, all thought they were standing straight.

And the amount of leaning changed their estimates.

You can see here that leaning to the right didn’t really change the way people estimated their numbers, but leaning to the left did! Leaning to the left made the Eiffel tower seem a little smaller, and maybe also reduced the number of Queen Beatrix’s grandchildren.

The authors think that leaning to the left might make smaller numbers more accessible in our brains for those of us who are used to working on a left-right number line. I asked if this might reverse for languages like Hebrew, which reads right to left, and Gudalupe said that this also seemed reasonable. I wonder about people who read top to bottom!

I also thought this might be a great kind of study to try in psychology labs! The Wii Fit is pretty cheap, and psychology students could then experience some of this for themselves! Anyone wanna try?

EDIT: An addition. As I found out on Twitter today, studies like these are not the favorite of many other psychologists, and they have some rather good reasons why. I think their questions about the lack of postural data are especially good. They even got in a discussion with one of the authors about the idea of embodied cognition over at Mo's blog, which appears to be one of the central differences of opinion. But it's also nice to see that this study could, conceivably, be replicated by a bunch of undergrads who brought in their Wiis. So maybe someone could take it on? Would be interesting to see.