Monday, September 10, 2012

Turning the mind to the future: clockwise movements increase openness to experience
Research has found that bodily movements are symbolically associated with movement in time. Clockwise movements are associated with progression into the future, whereas counterclockwise movements are associated with the reversal of time, and hence with regression into the past (Topolinski & Sparenberg, 2012). Progression in time is associated with novelty, and conversely, regression into the past is associated with returning to the old and familiar. A recent research study found that performing clockwise movements actually increased a person’s preference for novelty, whilst counterclockwise movements increased the preference for familiar things. An even more intriguing finding was that clockwise movements even increased self-ratings of openness to experience, a normally stable dimension of personality (Topolinski & Sparenberg, 2012).
 In this study, participants performed tasks such as turning cranks, or rotating rolls of paper towels, in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Participants were told the movements were part of a test on multi-tasking, so as far as they knew these actions were simply meaningless body movements. One finding was that when asked to choose different flavours of candy participants who had performed a clockwise movement chose more unusual flavours, whereas those who made a counterclockwise movement preferred more common ones. Thus, the clockwise movers were more willing to try new experiences.

Willingness to try new things is related to the personality trait openness to experience. Generally speaking, there are consistent individual differences in people’s levels of openness to experience and these differences tend to be stable over time. Therefore, I found it particularly fascinating that participants who performed a task involving clockwise movements with their hands subsequently self-reported significantly higher levels of openness to experience compared to those who performed counterclockwise motions. As noted in a previous article, research has found that increases in a person’s state level of openness to experience can be experimentally induced by asking a person to imagine performing actions associated with being very open (Schutte, Malouff, Segrera, Wolf, & Rodgers, 2003). This study was much more subtle in that participants were not consciously aware that the task they were performing had anything to do with their openness.

An intervention that could increase or decrease openness, could potentially be used to influence attitudes and behaviour related to this trait. High openness to experience is associated with a wide range of things besides willingness to try new things, such as political liberalism as opposed to conservatism, artistic creativity, intellectual curiosity, less conventional religious belief but also greater acceptance of mystical and paranormal beliefs. Research has not yet examined whether having people perform clockwise or counterclockwise motions would influence any of these things. It would be interesting to examine whether, for example, a person’s liking for a liberal or conservative political candidate could be influenced by such a procedure. 

Similarly, people could be asked to perform a creative task and their degree of creativity could be rated to determine if prior clockwise movements have a beneficial effect compared to counterclockwise ones.
Higher openness is also associated with intellectual abilities and with general knowledge. Therefore, students about to sit a test might be advised to perform clockwise movements and avoid counterclockwise ones, in order to better access their potential! This too could be experimentally tested by determining if test performance is influenced by this kind of intervention.    

As noted in a previous article, research has found that experimental manipulations to increase analytical thinking as opposed to intuitive thinking tend to decrease religious belief, such as belief in God. Because higher openness to experience is associated to a modest extent with less belief in God, it is possible that clockwise movements might reduce belief in God due to an associated increase in openness, whereas counterclockwise would strengthen such belief. Higher openness is also associated to an extent with greater belief in the paranormal, so similar interventions might influence belief in things like telepathy, witchcraft, and “New Age” ideas.

Topolinski and Sparenberg (2012) noted that movement direction orients a person to the past or the future. Therefore, counterclockwise movements might increase nostalgia for the past whereas clockwise movements might increase interest in speculation about future-related concerns, such as advances in technology. Perhaps this could be tested for example, by asking participants to write a story after performing movement tasks and offering them the choice of writing about a historical event or an imagined future society.
Future research could examine whether other major personality traits and their associated behaviours could be influenced by subtle actions with metaphorical connotations.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Further reading

For a sceptical critique of the statistical power of Topolinski & Sparenberg's study, see this paper, pp. 24 -27. 

Other posts discussing the possibilities of priming
Opening the Mind: Where Skepticism and Superstition Meet 
Reason Versus Faith? The Interplay of Intuition and Rationality In Supernatural Belief
Think Like a Man: Effects of Gender Priming on Cognition
Are Sex And Religion Natural Enemies?

Schutte, N. S., Malouff, J. M., Segrera, E., Wolf, A., & Rodgers, L. (2003). States reflecting the Big Five dimensions. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(4), 591-603. doi: 10.1016/s0191-8869(02)00031-4
Topolinski, S., & Sparenberg, P. (308). Turning the Hands of Time: Clockwise Movements Increase Preference for Novelty. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (3) DOI: 10.1177/1948550611419266


  1. I defintely feel like this is a very true study and makes a alot of sense. When moving counter- clockwise your brain is in a unfamiliar moving cycle oppose to how it norally operates. However; I have heard people say that most left handlers are abnormal people and this might be another good study to research as too if they move clockwise or counter clockwise

    1. In two of the four experiments, participants made turning movements using both hands, so this might have overcome any preference for the dominant hand. The authors' theory is that most cultures symbolically associate clockwise movement with forward movement of time, so if this were true then handedness would not seem to make a difference. However, they did not assess handedness so it remains an open question whether left-handers would respond differently.