I know this, you know this, and almost anyone who has been on the internet in the last ten years knows this.
Brain imaging studies have shown that the neural responses in Facebook-addicted subjects exhibit some similarities with those displayed by cocaine or gambling addicts.
But why is it so addictive? What about it drives us to go and refresh our news feed half a second after we just read through it?
My response to that question has always focused on the interplay between social behavior and habit formation. We evolved as social creatures, and built into us at an instinctive level is a desire to know about and interact with our peers. Facebook lets us tap into our social sphere with barely any effort, and our brain rewards us each time we do so with a little burst of dopamine. This leads to the formation of a habit where every time we open up a web browser or hear our phone buzz we instantly get an urge to check Facebook.
I heard an interesting thought today that addressed the phenomena at a slightly different level, helping me to understand what gives Facebook that added little addictive boost.
Facebook News Feed = Variable Ratio Operant Conditioning
For those of you a bit rusty on your Psych 101, I’ll elaborate.
Operant Conditioning is the theory that learning behavior is affected by an action’s consequences, e.g. positive or negative reinforcement or punishment.
In the mid 1900’s, Dr. B.F. Skinner showed that not only can the learning process for a behavior be affected by rewards or punishment, but that the scheduling of said factors plays a large role. In a laboratory setup where rats were given food pellets upon pressing a lever, he experimented with a variety of different reinforcement schedules. Varying groups of rats were given the pellets every time the lever was pressed, at a fixed ratio of presses (e.g. one in four), or at totally random presses (‘variable ratio’). Surprisingly, it turned out that the variable ratio group learned the behavior the strongest and retained it for the longest period of time.1
Which brings us to Facebook. How often do you check a Facebook notification only to find that it was some random person commenting on a photo you don’t care about, or talking in that giant group chat that you really should leave but haven’t gotten around to yet? What percentage of news feed perusals turn up a truly interesting post?
These days my feed tends to look like this:
The very paucity of quality content serves to ensure that I keep coming back for more.
But enough of psychology. It’s time for me to go find some of that red stuff.
In Victorian England, babies were often swaddled at birth to keep their arms and legs perfectly straight and in line with the sides of their body. They were left this way for 3-4 months in the hopes that it would to a tall and straight carriage later in life.
When they were a bit older, girls at expensive finishing schools would be made to walk for several hours each day while strapped between two long mahogany boards, again with the goal of inducing perfect posture2.
Thankfully, parents and teachers have moved away from such extreme practices in favor of the simple admonitions: “Sit up straight!” and “Stop slouching!”. But was this change entirely to our benefit?
Medieval knights were lauded both then and now for their regal, upright bearing both on foot and on horse. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all carry ourselves in the same way without having to take such extreme measures to get there?
This nifty little marvel of modern manufacture is like a little shoulder-devil whose sole purpose in life to yell at you every time you slouch.
Consisting of a sensor and a magnetic clip that you attach to the front of your shirt (the little silver or black square being the only outwardly visible portion), it vibrates any time your posture shifts towards slouching. It can be set to buzz immediately or with a specified delay / grace period, the default being two minutes.
As with all pieces of wearable technology these days, it syncs to an app that lets you track your posture on an hourly or daily basis. It can be programmed with set goals for each day and it will let you know whether or not you have achieved them.
I got my Lift yesterday and plan on making it a part of my daily wardrobe. Hopefully I will be able to report back in a week or two that I am well on my way to being deserving of knighthood.
But is it really worth the time and money? Is a bit of a slouch really so bad?
It turns out that this is one of those rare cases where modern science is in line with medieval intuition. The simple act of maintaining good posture has been shown to have far-reaching benefits mentally, physically, and socially.
Who we are is a product of how others see us and how we see ourselves. In both instances, the brain takes the cues from the body.
The Mental Benefits of Posture
One of the key researchers into the psychological effects of posture is Dr. Erik Peper from San Francisco State University.
In one study on sitting, he showed that sitting up straight made it easier to generate positive thoughts and memories in a whopping 92% of participants3.
In another study looking at walking habits, he had one group walk down a hallway with a slumped posture and another skip down it with an upright one. As compared to their initial baseline, the slumped group reported decreased energy levels after the walk whereas the skipping group reported increased ones4.
In a third study where a participant was anxious and crying, he demonstrated how simply causing them to look upwards decreased the crying and looking downwards amplified it5.
Branching out to some different researchers, Dana Carney and Andy Yap from Columbia University and Amy Cuddy from Harvard University studied the differences between wide, expansive postures and narrow, constrictive ones. They gave a group of participants $2 and told them that they could either keep it or roll a die for a 50/50 chance at turning it into $4. Before beginning, they instructed one group to sit with expansive postures and the other to use constrictive ones. The group with the expansive postures reported feeling more confident and in control and were 45% more likely to take the risk and roll the die. Furthermore, they showed that the expansive group had elevated levels of testosterone and reduced levels of cortisol6.
The Physical Benefits of Posture
A 2011 study from Gallup-Healthways found that 31% of U.S. adults suffer from some sort of neck or back pain7.
Unlike for the psychological effects, conclusively linking static sitting posture to incidence of back pain is quite difficult. Mentally, we can show how posture leads to hormonal changes which lead to behavioral changes. These changes are immediate rather than gradual. But our bodies are capable of taking quite a beating before they start giving out. It is therefore impossible to simply put a group in a lab, have them sit poorly for a few hours, and show any sort of lasting back pain from said activity. Instead, researchers have to study people in their daily lives—no easy task—which leads to the second problem: accurately measuring long-term posture. Not everyone can have a Lift.
It is far easier to show the dangers of sitting vs standing or moving. One group of researchers from the University of South Carolina showed a 64% increase in risk of cardiovascular disease from too much sedentary activity8. Another from the National Institute of Public Health in Copenhagan showed that an inactive lifestyle can shave off seven years of your life9.
A comprehensive literature review in 1997 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was unable to conclude a concrete link between static posture and lower back pain. This does not however show that it does not exist, as they themselves state “Few investigations examined effects of static work postures, and exposure characterizations were limited.” 10
When I began researching this topic I had expected to find a myriad of studies supporting the link between posture and bad back pain. While I was surprised to find that this was not the case, it does seem like that is more due to a lack of proper research than due to there being no link.
In 2014 NIOSH released a new document entitled “Observation-Based Posture Assessment, A Review of Current Practice and Recommendations for Improvement” which covered in detail the methods with which researchers should study posture in the future. This, combined with newer technological advancements such as seen with the Lumo Lift, should hopefully lead to some more effective research on the topic in the near future11.
The Social Benefits of Posture
Just as upright and expansive posture leads to feelings of confidence, so too does it invoke the image of confidence in onlookers. Since before we had language, before homo sapiens evolved from homo erectus and neanderthals, we have been interacting with each other based on body language12. It is hardwired into us to view those with an erect and confident bearing in a completely different light. It even makes us seem more attractive to the opposite gender13.
I could go on with this topic ad-nauseam, but I will save that for a more complete coverage of body language and its social ramifications (another hobby of mine) at a later date.
What is Good Posture?
Dr. Esther Gokhale from Stanford University has an interesting theory that posits that the bad posture of most modern Americans originates with how we were improperly seated as babies.
She may have a point.
But what is good posture?
A common misconception is that the spine should be straight. Instead, the spine should have three natural curves:
Cervical – an inward curve at the neck
Thoracic – an outward curve at the upper back
Lumbar – an inward curve at the lower back
There are all sorts of techniques and exercises to try and develop and maintain good posture, but my favorite is that put forth by Kelly Starrett from Mobility WOD in his book Becoming a Supple Leopard.
Once you are braced, you can either walk around or sit down. The important thing is to maintain ~20% tension in your abs at all times, and if sitting to get up and repeat the bracing sequence every 10-15 minutes.
The full excerpt from the book discussing posture can be found here.
Finally, here are a couple of nice stretches to do that will help with sitting posture:
A Final Warning
Training yourself to improve your posture should help fight back pain in the long run. But be warned: in the short run you might find yourself in even more pain. You will be using muscles that are unaccustomed to such extended strain.
I started using my Lumo Lift this morning and four hours in my lower back was already quite sore. This lead to a noticeable drop-off in my posture. My hope is that as I train my body to maintain this sort of pose naturally my stats will go up and my pain levels will drop off quickly.
I plan on reporting back in a week’s time with some significant progress, but in the meantime I’d love to hear about anyone else’s Lift experiences.