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Stand by Your Stroop: Standing Up Enhances Selective Attention and Cognitive Control

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https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617721270
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DOI: 10.1177/0956797617721270
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Short Report
It is rarely recognized that people are dual taskers all
the time. They must simultaneously control body pos-
ture and whatever cognitive task they are engaged in
at the moment. Even a common position like standing
engages complex attentional and physiological mecha-
nisms (more than the usual default sitting position does;
e.g., Kerr, Condon, & McDonald, 1985; Lajoie, Teasdale,
Bard, & Fleury, 1993; for a review, see Samuel, Solomon,
& Mohan, 2015; Woollacott & Shumway-Cook, 2002).
The posture-attention bond has been investigated
mainly with the goal of determining the effect of atten-
tion and cognition on the maintenance of posture. In
this study, we examined the reverse causal link: the
effect of standing as opposed to sitting on the selectiv-
ity of attention. To gauge the selectivity of attention,
we used psychology’s classic tool, the Stroop effect: the
larger the Stroop effect, the greater the failure of selec-
tive attention to the target attribute.
During standing, multiple muscles must be tonically
active because the line of gravity falls slightly in front of
the knees and ankles, so that “no one stands absolutely
still” (Samuel etal., 2015, p. 72). Attention must be con-
tinuously engaged to maintain this posture because there
is no such thing as quiet standing. Given that “stance
postural control [is] attentionally demanding” (Woollacott
& Shumway-Cook, 2002, p. 2), how do the extra atten-
tional demands affect performance in a concurrent cog-
nitive task? The scant literature on this question (mainly
in the domains of gerontology and physiology, usually
with a pragmatic purpose) presents conflicting results:
Some studies show that standing impairs performance
(e.g., Kerr etal., 1985), whereas other researchers report
that standing improves performance (e.g., Hazamy etal.,
2017). Mainstream cognitive research can provide a clue
given the possibility that the continuous maintenance of
the standing posture imposes a potentially stressful load
on the organism. Now it has been shown that the selec-
tivity of attention improves under stress (e.g., Chajut &
Algom, 2003) and load (e.g., Lavie, Hirst, De Fockert, &
Viding, 2004); recent studies show that stress and load
share the same physiological and attentional mechanism
(e.g., Sato, Takenaka, & Kawahara, 2012; Tiferet-Dweck
etal., 2016).
One must be circumspect, though, when considering
the effect of standing-induced stress on selective atten-
tion: In general, if a secondary task (e.g., maintenance
of posture) is made more difficult, it decreases perfor-
mance on a cognitively demanding primary task. Stress
indeed impairs performance in tasks of divided atten-
tion, integration of information, or decision making
(e.g., Keinan, 1987). However, selective attention is a
notable exception: It has been repeatedly shown that
stress or load (or both) actually improves the selectivity
of attention.
In a study that addresses this issue, Koch, Holland,
Hengstler, and van Knippenberg (2009) had participants
perform a Stroop task after stepping backward or for-
ward (with a constant distance separating participants
from the stimuli). The Stroop effect was smaller after
they stepped backward, probably because of the stress
or extra vigilance fostered when walking backward.
This stress was conducive to enhanced selectivity of
attention, as expressed in a smaller Stroop effect. Given
the results obtained by Koch etal. and the likelihood
that standing, as opposed to sitting, entails extra atten-
tional load and stress, we expected that standing would
be conducive to a smaller Stroop effect.
721270PSSXXX10.1177/0956797617721270Rosenbaum et al.Standing, Sitting, and Stroop Performance
research-article2017
Corresponding Author:
Yaniv Mama, Department of Behavioral Sciences and Psychology,
Ariel University, Ariel 40700, Israel
E-mail: yanivma@ariel.ac.il
Stand by Your Stroop: Standing
Up Enhances Selective Attention
and Cognitive Control
David Rosenbaum1, Yaniv Mama2, and Daniel Algom1
1School of Psychological Sciences, Tel Aviv University, and 2Department of Behavioral Sciences
and Psychology, Ariel University
Received 9/22/16; Revision accepted 6/27/17
2 Rosenbaum et al.
Method
All participants in all three studies had normal or
corrected-to-normal vision, and none reported color
blindness.
Experiment 1
Participants were Tel Aviv University undergraduate
students (N = 17; mean age = 23 years, age range =
19–27 years). This number of participants provided .61
power to find a medium-size effect. The stimuli were
the color words “RED,” “GREEN,” “BLUE,” and “BROWN”
combined factorially with the corresponding print col-
ors. The stimuli were generated in Microsoft Word (in
24-point Miriam, a Hebrew typeface) on a PC and dis-
played on a light gray background on a 14-in. color
monitor (resolution = 800 × 600 pixels). Viewed from
a distance of approximately 60 cm, single words sub-
tended 0.57° of visual angle in height and between
1.33° and 5.16° of visual angle in width. This constant
distance was preserved across standing and sitting. Dur-
ing both conditions—sitting and standing—the partici-
pants were presented with 72 color-word Stroop stimuli,
half of which were congruent and half of which were
incongruent. The order of testing between sitting and
standing was counterbalanced in a random fashion
across participants. The participants responded by
speaking the name of the print color in which the
words appeared into a microphone (HPX-8 headset;
Teac, Tokyo, Japan).
Experiment 2
Participants were Tel Aviv University undergraduate
students (N = 16; mean age = 24.2 years, age range =
19–26). In this experiment, the stimuli were arrows
pointing upward or downward, each placed in the top
position (3 cm above the fixation point at the center of
a 12- × 8-cm rectangle) or in the bottom position (3 cm
below the fixation point at the center of an identically
sized rectangle). The task consisted of deciding the
direction of the arrow while ignoring spatial position.
There were 32 trials, half of which were congruent (e.g.,
an upward pointing arrow in the top position) and half
of which were incongruent. The participants responded
by pressing one of a pair of lateralized keys on a com-
puter keyboard; the response to which the keys were
mapped was counterbalanced across participants.
Experiment 3
Participants were Ariel University undergraduate stu-
dents (N = 50; mean age = 26.1 years, age range = 19–32
years). The stimuli and design were the same as in
Experiment 1. Special care was taken to remove all
demand characteristics (in particular, all the experi-
menters were blind to the hypothesis). Increasing the
number of participants to 50 provided a power of .92
to detect a medium-sized effect. This is very high
power, which means that there was a very high prob-
ability of detecting any existing effect. The analysis was
based on correct responses only (98% in Experiment
1, 97.2% in Experiment 2, and 97.5% in Experiment 3);
we also removed responses deviating from each par-
ticipant’s mean response time (RT) by more than 2.5
SD (3.8%).
Results
Order (standing, sitting) was tested in each experiment
but was not significant and did not interact with posture
and congruity in each analysis of variance (ANOVA; Fs <
1 in all cases). In Experiments 1 and 2, we recorded
significant Stroop effects in both the standing and sit-
ting conditions. The mean RTs for color naming in the
sitting condition of Experiment 1 were 785 ms (95%
confidence interval, CI = [740.08, 829.92]) when the
stimuli were congruent and 892 ms (95% CI = [852.45,
931.55]) when the stimuli were incongruent, t(16) =
8.689, p < .01, Cohen’s d = 2.147. The mean RTs for
color naming in the standing condition of Experiment
1 were 785 ms (95% CI = [743.94, 826.06]) when the
stimuli were congruent, and 861 ms (95% CI = [832.23,
889.77]) when the stimuli were incongruent, t(16) =
6.687, p < .01, d = 1.857. In the case of judgments of
arrow direction, the mean RTs in the sitting condition
of Experiment 2 were 523 ms (95% CI = [472.52, 573.48])
when the stimuli were congruent and 625 ms (95% CI =
[567.91, 682.09]) when the stimuli were incongruent,
t(15) = 2.728, p < .01, d = 0.683. The mean RTs for arrow-
direction judgment in the standing condition of Experi-
ment 2 were 572 ms (95% CI = [523.46, 620.54]) when
the stimuli were congruent and 603 ms (95% CI = [565.69,
640.31]) when the stimuli were incongruent, t(15) =
2.207, p < .05, d = 0.59.
The most revealing feature of the data was the
decrease in the Stroop effect when participants were
standing. For color naming, the difference of 32 ms
favoring standing was confirmed by the interaction of
posture and congruity, F(1, 16) = 5.701, p = .03, ηp2 =
.263. For arrow direction, the difference of 71.54 ms
favoring standing was confirmed by the interaction of
posture and congruity, F(1, 15) = 4.062, p = .062, ηp2 =
.213.
The results for Experiment 3 are presented in Figure
1. Overall, the responses were faster when participants
were standing than when they were sitting, F(1, 49) = 7.33,
Standing, Sitting, and Stroop Performance 3
p < .01, ηp2 = .130. The Stroop effects in both the sitting
condition, M = 118.9 ms, t(49) = 16.52, p < .01, d = 2.376,
and the standing condition, M = 95.9 ms, t(49) = 14.327,
p < .01, d = 2.034, were highly reliable, but the most sig-
nificant finding again was the shrinkage of the effect when
participants were standing, F(1, 49) = 8.964, p = .004,
ηp2 = .155. Of the 50 participants, 35 exhibited this pattern
(p < .01), supporting the enhancement of selectivity while
standing (see the Supplemental Material available online).
Stroop effects tend to be larger when participants
take longer to respond overall (Shalev & Algom, 2000).
Does the smaller effect recorded for the standing condi-
tion derive from the faster overall responding in this
condition? To examine this possibility, we calculated
the correlation across observers between mean RT and
size of the Stroop effect and found an insignificant cor-
relation of .15. For another test, we matched the RTs
across sitting and standing by scaling each observer’s
data to equal the overall mean across sitting and
standing. We then subjected the rescaled data to an
ANOVA with the same design as the one used on the
original data and still found a significant interaction of
posture and congruity, F(1, 49) = 6.693, p = .013,
ηp2 = .120; the Stroop effect was smaller when partici-
pants were standing. This analysis also ruled out abso-
lute RT as the factor generating the difference in
selectivity between the standing conditions and the
sitting conditions.
Conclusion
The vast majority of studies in current experimental
psychology are done with the participant in a sitting
position (typically facing a computer monitor). In the
current study, we showed that body posture affects
cognition and attention. Given that the distinction
between standing and sitting posture is an endogenous
dichotomy, unlike such exogenous dichotomies as
warm-cold or morning-evening, our findings should
generalize across gender, race, or culture. After all, the
present findings are contingent on human physiology.
Nonetheless, our study is still based on samples of
young university students, a fact that invites testing on
larger populations to better pinpoint the size of the
effect (see, Simons, Shoda, & Lindsay, 2017). These
extensions should also advance theory, as our account
is admittedly tentative. Our main purpose was to estab-
lish the empirical phenomenon. In conclusion, a new
experimental psychology of standing might qualify
recent results in cognitive science that are largely based
on the experimental psychology of sitting.
Action Editor
D. Stephen Lindsay served as action editor for this article.
Author Contributions
All authors contributed equally in all stages of designing and
running the experiment, analyzing the data, interpreting the
data, and writing the manuscript, and all authors approved
the final version of the manuscript for publication.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest
with respect to their authorship or the publication of this
article.
Supplemental Material
Additional supporting information can be found at http://
journals.sagepub.com/doi/suppl/10.1177/0956797617721270
Open Practices
All data have been made publicly available via the Open Science
Framework and can be accessed at https://osf.io/uwzsb/. The
design and analysis plan for Experiment 3 was preregistered at
the Open Science Framework and can be accessed at https://
osf.io/uwzsb/. The complete Open Practices Disclosure for
this article can be found at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/
suppl/10.1177/0956797617721270. This article has received
badges for Open Data and Preregistration. More information
about the Open Practices badges can be found at https://www
.psychologicalscience.org/publications/badges.
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... The effect of standing on EF has been investigated in several studies, for example, in the study of Rosenbaum et al. (2017). In this study, university students stood while executing a 72 item Stroop test measuring inhibition. ...
... In this study, university students stood while executing a 72 item Stroop test measuring inhibition. The students in the standing condition performed better on this test than the students in the sitting condition (Rosenbaum et al., 2017). Additionally, studies with standing interventions of longer duration than conducted in the study of Rosenbaum and colleagues also reported positive effects of standing on EF. ...
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... Standing compared to sitting, for instance at work, is associated with positive physical and mental health consequences. Indeed, studies suggest that performance in cognitive conflict tasks (e.g., Color Stroop tasks) is improved when subjects perform the task while standing compared to sitting (Rosenbaum et al., 2018;Smith et al., 2019). However, a recent study failed to replicate these findings in five attempts (Caron et al., 2020). ...
... A recent study found that standing relative to sitting improved cognitive control (Rosenbaum et al., 2018). In two experiments, participants responded to the print-color of a color word that was either congruent or incongruent to the color word's meaning (i.e., Color Stroop task) during standing and sitting posture. ...
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... Stepping exergames require participants to stand upright and perform steps, which directly addresses gait and balance (Kappen et al., 2018). Exergaming in an upright standing body position also enhances processing speed and attentional selectivity (Rosenbaum et al., 2017) and influences visual working memory performance (Dodwell et al., 2019). However, compared to seated cognitive games, exergames might impose a higher risk of falling than seated exergames. ...
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