The Independent Discovery of the Embodiment of Cognition by Social Psychologists

Michael Spivey
Department of Psychology
Cornell University

Sometimes it is surprising how two similar theoretical aims can be pursued in parallel, simultaneously, by different fields without any knowledge of one another's empirical demonstrations. One powerful example comes from recent research projects in social psychology and in cognitive science. As many of you know, cognitive science has recently been highlighting (again) the importance of concerete sensory and motor processes for what are often assumed to be rather abstract cognitive representations: The Embodiment of Cognition (e.g., Ballard, Hayhoe, Pook and Rao, 1997; Barsalou, 1999; Glenberg, 1997; Varela, Thomson & Rosch, 1991; but cf. Markman & Dietrich, 2000). Likewise, and completely independently, a number of social psychologists have been demonstrating that bodily actions have strong unconscious associations with various conceptual representations (e.g., Bargh, Chen, & Burrows,1996; Cacioppo, Priester, & Berntson, 1993).

Although many readers probably know at least a bit about this recent movement in cognitive science (if you don't, I recommend you read some of the references above), very few cognitive scientists know about the related work going on in social psychology. Similarly, the very social psychologists carrying out this related work are generally unaware of cognitive science's ’embodiment of cognition’ approach.

One particularly compelling experimental demonstration from this line of work in social psychology comes from John Bargh's lab. In 1996, they reported an experiment that subliminally primed participants with the concept of being elderly. They did this by having the participants turn word jumbles into sentences, and several of the trials had words associated with the elderly, such as old, retired, and wrinkle. When they were done, the participants were informed that the experiment was over, and they could leave. But the real data collection had only just begun. When these participants left the lab, a confederate in the hallway recorded the time the participant took to walk from the lab to the elevator, to leave the building. Participants who had been primed with the elderly stereotype walked significantly slower than participants who had done a version of the word jumble task that did not prime the elderly stereotype (Bargh et al.,1996). This result sounds outlandish, but the finding has already been replicated by a number of different labs. Thus, it appears that even just unconsciously activating a concept may often include activating motor processes that are part of that concept.

Another demonstration of the embodiment of cognition in social psychology was first reported by John Cacioppo's lab. In this experiment, participants were instructed to view and evaluate various ideographs, while using their hands and forearms to pull toward themselves, or while using their hands and forearms to push away from themselves. The pulling-toward-the-self motion was hypothesized to unconsciously activate a concept of affiliation or acceptance. The pushing-away motion was hypothesized to unconsciously activate a concept of avoidance or rejection. When later reviewing the same images, these participants were instructed to rate the ideographs on a likeability scale. Remarkably, the images that had been viewed during a pulling motion received significantly higher ratings than those that had been viewed during a pushing motion (Cacioppo et al., 1993).

These findings from social psychology sound almost like science fiction or fantasy, or perhaps a short story in National Lampoon. Yet, they are genuine results that have been replicated in multiple labs. For cognitive scientists like ourselves, these studies are more than just exciting additional evidence that the motor system may play an important role in conceptual representation. They pose as a lesson, reminding us that, as cognitive scientists - among the most interdisciplinary of all scientists - we must continuously check with our neighboring disciplines for constructive cross-breeding of theoretical constructs and empirical results.


Ballard, D. H., Hayhoe, M. M., Pook, P. K., & Rao, R. P. N. (1997). Deictic codes for the embodiment of cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20, 723-767.

Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.

Barsalou, L. W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 577-660.

Cacioppo, J. T., Priester, J. R., & Berntson, G. G. (1993). Rudimentary determinants of attitudes: II. Arm flexion and extension have differential effects on attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 5-17.

Glenberg, A. (1997). What memory is for. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20, 1-55.

Markman, A. B., & Dietrich, E. (2000). Extending the classical view of representation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 4, 70-75.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.