Cognitive Control Is Improved By Taking A Step Back - Literally


A new study suggests that physically stepping backwards may be associated with gains in the ability to deal with problematic situations. As newly reported in Psychological Science (hat tip to Hannah) by Koch, Holland, Hengstler & Knippenberg, people were better able to resolve interference in laboratory "Stroop" task after stepping backwards, relative to stepping to the side or forwards. The authors argue that stepping backwards is typically associated with problematic situations, which characteristically require cognitive control (the set of capacities which enable us to control our behavior and focus on important features of the environment). Koch et al conclude that stepping backwards allows one to more strongly engage these control processes!

The authors demonstrated this fascinating effect by testing 38 subjects on laptop-based Stroop task (in which subjects must name the colors of words while NOT reading the words themselves - e.g., RED). The laptop was mounted on a mobile cart, and subjects were asked to take a step in one of four possible directions (backwards, forwards, left or right) before 12 words were presented in sequence. These "blocks" of trials consisted of equal numbers of incongruent (RED), congruent (RED), and "neutral" trials in which non-color words were used (LOT). Each subject saw a total of 8 blocks, and verbal reaction times were measured by the onset time of the voice on trials that were both correct and within 2.5 standard deviations of their median reaction times.

The results showed a clear effect of stepping backwards - subjects were remarkably faster to name the ink color of incongruent color-words (RED) when they had stepped backwards, relative to forwards or sideways! Moreover, there were no differences on the neutral or congruent trial types, although there was perhaps a trend towards longer reaction times on congruent trials when subjects had stepped backwards. Both effects are consistent with the idea that stepping backwards allowed subjects to better attend to color (or to better suppress word-reading, depending on your interpretation of what's involved in this task).

This work is remarkable not only for demonstrating how a very concrete and simple bodily experience can influence even the highest levels of cognitive processing (in this case, the so-called "cognitive control" processes that enable focused attention), but also because performance on the Stroop task is notoriously difficult to improve. Previous work indicates that meditation might improve performance on this task, but it requires months of training and yields only small or inconsistent effects. In contrast, more targeted "cognitive" training has shown no or very inconsistent effects on Stroop performance, even when that training is successful at improving performance on other tasks.

There's always the possibility that findings like this just reflect a very (un?)lucky set of researchers (that is, a Type I error), but I find this a little unlikely in this particular case. In particular, the trend towards increased reaction times for congruent trials when subjects had stepped backwards is very suggestive - and very consistent with the significant results found for the incongruent trials. Focusing on the important color features helps in incongruent trials, but could hurt you in congruent trials (where reading the word would actually give you the correct answer). If the influence of stepping backwards were actually random, and the significant improvement in reaction times on incongruent trials just a result of random chance, one wouldn't expect to see any evidence of the opposite effect on congruent trials. On the other hand...

I do wonder a bit about the "mobile cart" setup used here. One trivial technique for improving performance on the Stroop task is to blur your vision - by crossing your eyes or "diffusing" your spatial attention. By doing this, you are less likely to read the word, and thus more likely to be able to name the ink color rapidly in incongruent trials. If stepping backwards is associated with the spreading of spatial attention (as seems reasonable - to make sure you don't fall over!) or simply with less acute vision than stepping to the side or forwards (as also seems reasonable - vision is probably better for objects that approach or stay the same than for those that at least momentarily recede), these effects could be just another demonstration of the well-known sensitivity of the Stroop task to vision and spatial attention. Unfortunately, the short-report format used here does not allow for much detail in the methods section, and so the relevant details for ruling out this alternative were not provided in the paper.

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Interesting, but yeah, I was wondering about whether or not they controlled for the distance to the monitor after/while the subject moved. One (awkward) way you could do it would be to somehow tether the cart to the subject, so that it moved with them when they stepped. A less awkward setup would just be to have the subjects hold the laptops. You might also want to try "move with eyes open" and "move with eyes shut" conditions.

Frankly, I feel skeptical of these results and I think they need to be replicated by other researchers with strong rationales presented before being accepted at face value.

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May be a step back take more attention from our consciousness than step forward which can be done nearly automatic. It is not give control but take control from reading a word more than recognize a color.

Very interesting idea but I'm not sure how it would relate to complex problem solving and situational problem solving. I would dispute real world application versus the scientific legitimacy of the study.

ok, first of all, to Derek James the first comment posted, the article said that the laptop was on a mobile cart so i think it's safe to say that the distance between the subject and the screen stayed relatively the same no matter which direction they stepped. let me preface my thoughts on the study by first saying that anyone who can blur or otherwise distort their own vision by slightly crossing their eyes could pass this test with 100% success. because one would not be able to read the word but still see the color just fine. that being said, I'd be interested to know the location of the light source in the room. if the light was directly above the test space or the nearest light was even closely located directly above the subject, they would only be affected by the light by stepping backward. side to side or forward wouldn't change a thing, now this would'nt affect them so strongly that they could'nt read the word at all but definitely accounts for the amount of change seen in the study. Incongruent and congruent tests would be virtually the same, and neutral words wouldn't change because they are the easiest ones to get in the first place. i'd like to get some feedback on this because if i'm right then someone spent a lot of time on a flawed test and others spent a lot of time writing about it. that's just me. i could be wrong. probably not though.

By Jess Cooley (not verified) on 29 May 2009 #permalink

My guess is that the research on a backward step is highly applicable to work settings. It's little different than walking into a movie and deciding on the best location for focus. Too close distorts, and being too close spatially (emotionally too) to a problem creates focus issues.

Very interesting, it is like the tree and the forest paradox, you can not see the whole forest cause your perception range is covered by a tiny tree in front of you. (that is why you have to go back a couple of steps, to see)