From a recent Psychological Science,

In everyday life, individuals typically approach desired stimuli by stepping forward and avoid aversive stimuli by stepping backward... Cognitive functioning was gauged by means of a Stroop task immediately after a participant stepped in one direction... Stepping backward significantly enhanced cognitive performance compared to stepping forward or sideways. Considering the effect size, backward locomotion appears to be a very powerful trigger to mobilize cognitive resources.

As Chris Chatham notes,

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.

When you suddenly realize that a task is more difficult than you assumed it would be, or when you face a particularly difficult choice in pursuit of rationality, you may find it useful to literally take a step back. For those of us who are particularly interested in making good decisions, this may also serve the purpose of self-signaling, as Yvain and commenters discussed earlier.

Chris's post has a link to a pdf of the paper.

5 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:43 PM
Select new highlight date

Neat. Do you actually need to move relative to your surroundings? If not, should researchers set up reverse treadmills? If you keep making the right leg movements, does it work from a chair?

As remarked on in the linked blog post, there seems a nontrivial likelihood that the effect is related only to visual processing, not general cognition. While Chatham hedges the visual processing idea a bit, I find it a more persuasive hypothesis than the other options. I can't really give this much weight unless it were demonstrated to have a similar effect on non-visual cognitive tasks.

On the other hand, if this is signicant I may need to take up reverse-pacing.

I'd wait for more study before taking this too seriously. As Chris Chatham also notes...

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.