Column: Fold your arms and solve your problems


If you’re having trouble solving a math problem or beating someone in chess or checkers, perhaps you should stop scratching your head. That really doesn’t help you think clearer or make you look confident, though I suppose it’s a little better than scratching yourself elsewhere. (I’m not an expert on scratching, though as a man I’ve done a fair bit of it in my lifetime.)

The best thing you can do, in terms of posture, is fold your arms. A new study has found that just by folding (or crossing) your arms, you’ll have more perseverance and a greater desire to succeed. Yes, it’s true. Researchers found that university students who folded their arms were more successful and persistent at solving anagrams than students who kept their hands on their thighs. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start folding my arms as much as I can. I want to be successful not just in solving problems, but also in other activities:

— "Of course I’m in the mood, honey. Do you think we can do it with our arms folded?"

— "I didn’t mean to swerve, officer. My mouth slipped."

— "It’s nice to meet you, Dr. Gupta. Do you mind if we shake feet?"

The researchers, including Ron Friedman of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, got the idea of studying arm-folding while watching former pro basketball coach Pat Riley, who would even go to the men’s room with his arms folded. Friedman wondered if Riley was gaining some kind of competitive edge from his posture. It’s amazing how the mind of a scientist works. I’ve watched Riley and his folded arms many times and my reaction was always the same: "Give the man a blanket — he’s feeling cold."

If you’re wondering how arm crossing increases persistence, the answer is fairly simple: when you cross your arms, you apply a little pressure to your chest, which tightens your heart and makes it pump a little slower, while simultaneously sending a message to your brain that says: "Get cranking, dude, or I’ll cut off your blood supply."

Actually, what really happens is that our brain induces a state of mind based on associations. "If you continue crossing your arms when you’re feeling persistent,
that association is going to trigger persistence just by arm crossing
alone," Friedman told Canwest News Service.

That makes a lot of sense to me. And it’s why I’ve typed this entire column with my nose. I feel so persistent, I’m going to stay up all night to write next year’s columns. I’ve already thought of a few titles. Jan. 20: "Hurrah! Obama takes office!" Jan. 27: "Troops withdrawn from Iraq." Feb. 3: "Gas prices drop, economy rebounds." Feb 10: "Dogs and cats sign peace accord."

It’s amazing how persistent I feel. I wish someone had told me about the magic of arm crossing when I was younger. During my schooldays, I took hundreds of exams, struggled through thousands of problems, never once thinking of crossing my arms. (I did cross my legs, which, for some strange reason, made me feel like running to the bathroom.)

My posture during exams was all wrong. I’d be slouched over a desk, one hand holding a pencil, the other hand scratching my head. I would occasionally look at the teacher, hoping to get some encouragement, a smile perhaps or soothing words such as "Don’t worry, I’m going to grade on a curve" or "Feel free to look over each other’s shoulder if you need to."

But seeing us sweating, the teacher showed no sign of sympathy, just a look of satisfaction and quiet determination, leaning back into a chair, arms folded.

Photos by (l to r) jcooke, cactusmelba, Gavatron and mharrsch

If you enjoyed this piece, you'll love Melvin's novel Bala Takes the Plunge, available in North America through and You can also find it at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. A number of readers have written reviews of the novel. An excerpt of the novel can be read here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: