Learning Needs To Be Tense

Can folding our arms help us persist with problems?

A colleague of mine always seems to fold his arms. There’s nothing much wrong with that except to the outside world this could send out a defensive message.

Does this say that he is distant? Does it say he is in control or shy and insecure? It can certainly make him looked annoyed at times.

Folding our arms is one of those things we all do as a basic instinct. When we feel threatened by a situation then crossing our arms over our chest creates a barrier that helps us protect our vital organs – the lungs and the heart.

But Dave isn’t being threatened by anyone in the staff room and he doesn’t have any enemies as far as I know.

Does Dave do it to look dominant? No, he’s not really that type either. It must be a confidence thing. In a group, someone who doesn’t feel confident is usually the person who has their arms crossed.

I thought more about why Dave crossed his arms in our meetings and one day he revealed all.

We were mulling over a tricky issue once and he said, “I think I’ll just have to cross my arms tighter for this one!”

We tittered but I asked him whether that would help and he said that crossing arms was supposed to help with problem-solving.

I delved further.

Sure enough I found a study that found when faced with a challenging task folding your arms makes a difference.

Ron Friedman and Andrew Elliot (2007) from the University of Rochester asked people to tackle an impossible anagram to solve. Half were told to attempt the anagram with their hands on their thighs, while the others were instructed to sit with their arms folded.

The results were interesting to say the least: the thigh group persevered on task for around 30 seconds while the arm folders kept at it for nearly 55 seconds.

They then did another experiment which involved testing more people with anagrams that had multiple solutions. Remarkably the arm folders came up with more solutions than the thigh group.

Friedman and Elliot suggested that the act of crossing our arms comes to be implicitly associated with perseverance, so adopting that position activates a nonconscious desire to succeed.

They said that crossing our arms sends our a brains a proprioceptive cue, a scientific term for our perception of the relative position of our body parts. When our arms are crossed it tells the brain to get serious and get down to the business of problem-solving.

What this tells me is that everyone was wrong about Dave. He actually tensed his body on purpose and also unconsciously when it became a habit in order to solve problems. This made sense. Dave never gave up. If anyone had perseverance on his CV it was him. He was far more optimistic about getting things done than we were.

Friedman and Elliot found that “arm crossing elicits perseverance-related behavior in achievement settings” as a way of supporting mental effort. Other researchers agree and say that arm crossing can “activate a motivated stance toward the environment.”

If therefore we come across something that puzzles us or a situation that needs some extra insight, why don’t we act as if we are being persistent and fold our arms!

So there you have it folks. When it comes to your next maths lesson or any lesson where there is a problem to be solved, get children to cross their arms and encourage them to be tense. It might just help them unravel things….fingers crossed.

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