The Science Behind the Most Watched TED Talk

Why do people standing like Wonder Woman feel more powerful than people sitting with their legs crossed and arms folded?  Why do changes in the physical body systematically influence feelings and actions?

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who was part of the team that conducted the “Wonder Woman” study, gave a TED Talk entitled “You Body Language Shapes Who You Are.”  It has nearly 38 million views, making it the most highly viewed TED talk since 2012.  It showcases how cognitive processes are deeply rooted in the body’s movements.  But why does it matter to VR designers?

If a user makes any action, even as minor as a head nod, it can activate greater feelings of agreeableness compared to shaking the head. VR designers are creating entire environments that engage the body. While I doubt that any adult walking around in the world today is surprised that nodding leads to agreeableness, the point is that VR designers should be conscious of these and other body-brain links in order to build the easiest and most immersive experiences. 

Why are body-brain interactions frequently overlooked? 

I suspect these body-brain interactions are frequently overlooked because they are happening fluidly and non-consciously.  These “action-perception couplings” usually happen automatically. 

The relationship between action and perception is in continuous flux from the world, through the sensory system, into your body and back out into the world again in the form of actions.  This is the way that humans work and it’s so obvious that it’s easily overlook. 

Here’s another example of pulling vs. pushing an object:

People who pull something towards them (think of activating your bicep) consider the object with more positivity, excitement, and acceptance.  They value it more and express a higher willingness to pay for the object. 

People who push something away from them (think of extending your tricep) consider the exact same object with more negativity, disinterest, and rejection.  They value it less and express a lower willingness to pay for the object. 

Professor Amy Cuddy demonstrating an expansive posture during a talk.

Professor Amy Cuddy demonstrating an expansive posture during a talk.

Now imagine yourself sitting in a design review meeting.  You are sharing an experience you have designed where someone is interacting with the object and one of the creative directors say, “I think the interaction would be cooler if they pushed the object away instead of pulling it.”

Do you want to have that debate based on what’s cool? 

Or based on what the science says about how actions influence decisions?

VR designers are creating experiences that rely on people to interact with their experiences in a way that requires the user’s physical body, and that will unavoidably have consequences on emotions, thoughts and feelings.  THIS IS HAPPENING.  You operating inside of a system that you may not be fully conscious of and there is a danger of making grave design errors. 


Posture doesn’t just telegraph out to those around you what your emotional state is, it also communicates “outside in” to your brain.  You can use this cognitive short hand to your advantage.  Consider the emotional state that you want your users to experience and then give them opportunities to engage their bodies in a way that would support that. 

Cognitive processes that lead to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are deeply rooted in the body’s interactions with the physical environment.  VR designers that engage any part of the body are operating inside of a system that may be aware of because they live in it, but they are not fully knowledgeable about how to design for that system (see Blog Post #1 “What the hell is water?”). 

Your users enter your experience pre-programmed with his own set of action-perception couplings.  Do you want to utilize the existing ones, or form new ones?  Just as anyone learning to play a sport will automatically form new muscle memories, people inside of your experience will be using and possibly re-forming new action-perception couplings. In my next post, I’ll talk about additional examples of these couplings and their implications for VR.


Further reading

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368. 

Cuddy, A. J. C. (Producer). (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. TED talks. Retrieved from uage_shapes_who_you_are?language=en# 

Ranehill, E., Dreber, A., Johannesson, M., Leiberg, S., Sul, S., & Weber, R. A. (2015). Assessing the Robustness of Power Posing No Effect on Hormones and Risk Tolerance in a Large Sample of Men and Women. Psychological science, 0956797614553946.