Begin with a graceful pose.
You’ll recall that I am a dancer, a persuasive dancer, and the beautiful pose struck here arises after you have leapt into the air, then stuck the landing thence gliding to the next physical torture that is called ballet. Properly done, ballet looks easier than sneezing, blinking, or swallowing thus hiding the pain, effort, and practice such grace requires. And, pain is the key word here. If you don’t suffer in practice you will find no grace in performance.
Now, while all this sounds purely physical with just a moment’s reflection you know that any complex physical movement requires considerable cognitive work if only to acquire and memorize the instructions for the movements. And, you also know that it is easy – whether the task is purely cognitive, physical, or a mixture – to overload the practice. You try too much too soon too rapidly.
This leads us to propose the embodied-cognitive-load hypothesis . . . In the present study, we considered the effect of cognitive load in the context of embodied cognition, which uses bodily resources to maintain and manipulate information. The fundamental insight of the embodied-cognition literature is that even very abstract thinking may be parasitic on evolutionarily older brain systems that originally subserved purely sensory and motor interactions with the world (cf. Wilson, 2002, 2008). We proposed an overlooked aspect of this legacy: that resources allocated to controlling the body, at least at a high level of complexity that pushes expert performance to its limits, are inseparable from resources needed for thinking at a more abstract level about the material to be memorized. Inevitably, resource competition will occur.
What a beautiful conceptual jete! We’ve seen Embodied Persuasion before in many guises where body changes produce changes in the heart and mind. Let’s step WATTage into the dance. Performance requires cooperation and coordination in mind and body, so why not with ballet? Let’s compare two ways of learning a dance.
In this study, we tested the embodied-cognitive-load hypothesis by comparing performances of two dance routines, one rehearsed primarily by marking, the other rehearsed only by dancing full out. If marking serves a purely physical function, then no difference in performance should be observed or, possibly, there should be an advantage for the full-out condition, because rehearsal would more closely match tested performance. In contrast, the cognitive-load hypothesis predicts better performance when part of the rehearsal time is spent marking than when the performance is rehearsed full out.
Consider marking in more detail.
Marking involves enacting the sequence of movements with curtailed size and energy by diminishing the size of steps, height of jumps and leaps, and extension of limbs. The dancer often does not leave the floor and may even substitute hand gestures for certain steps.
Realize the reduction in cognitive load with marking. Instead of managing, performing, and assessing each detail of the dance, you reduce moves to partials, to gestures, to indications. Of course, you have spent years executing each of the details, so you have a tremendous reserve of muscle memory for each. You are not learning a new move, just new combinations and sequences. The researchers note an analogy to theatrical rehearsal.
Theatrical performers also practice gestures before stepping out on stage. It is standard activity in theater to do an “Italian run-through” — saying one’s lines and moving about the stage extra fast when staging a play to clarify the timing and relative positions of the actors.
This was standard practice in action sequences on stage as in farces with actors darting around stage rapidly. You’d move half-time from window to bedroom to closet waving arms and muttering lines gaining speed and detail with each attempt. A theatrical kind of marking just like the ballet marking described here. Everything is there in rehearsal, just reduced, moderated, or minimized.
Now, the conceptual argument here is that such marking is a kind of lowered embodied demand for cognition. You dial down all the details to allow more WATTage to master the outline (again while doing well-known movements, not novel movements). Contrast that with a full rehearsal where you must devote all WATTage all the time to all the details and outlines. If this happens, how do you Count the Change?
Each movement of each performance was scored in two ways. One was a global judgment of whether the desired quality had been successfully executed. Each movement in the routine was scored as 0 (unsuccessful) or 1 (successful), for a total possible 16 points for the two performances of the routine. The other was an analytical scoring method based on Laban movement analysis, which assessed whether each quality had the appropriate features of weight (muscular energy in relation to gravity), time (use of speed and duration in movement), and spatial intention (attention to the external environment) (Table 2). Each feature of each movement was scored as a 0 (unsuccessful) or a 1 (successful), for a total possible 48 points for each routine.
Ballet counts brutally. Yes or no. And, the yes is a perfect yes and everything else is no. It counts both accuracy and quality.
Experienced dancers learn two new, but simple, routines. One is practiced with marking (low cognitive load). The other is practiced full out (high cognitive load). Experienced ballet judges, blind to conditions then rate each dancer and dance on accuracy and quality.
Which kind of training produces a higher quality performance?
The researchers counted quality three ways. First, as a percentage of correct movements . . .
Performance in the marked condition (M = 87.6%, SD = 11.1) was better than that in the danced condition (M = 74.9%, SD = 16.7), t(37) = 4.00, p < .001, Cohen’s d = 0.90.
Then as percentage of all movements . . .
Performance in the marked condition (M = 83.5%, SD = 16.8) was better than that in the danced condition (M = 70.8%, SD = 17.1), t(37) = 3.83, p < .001, Cohen’s d = 0.75.
And, finally, within all dancers without mistakes . . .
Again, performance in the marked condition (M = 91.4%, SD = 8.1) was better than that in the danced condition (M = 76.8%, SD = 14.7), t(21) = 4.25, p < .001, Cohen’s d = 1.16.
The Cohen d Windowpanes range from near Large (.75) to Stupendous (1.16). Dancers trained with marking rather than with complete rehearsal were counted as wildly better in performance. What’s interesting about this Stupendous advantage is that it occurred against an extremely high level of overall accuracy. Whether the danced from marking or full training, each performance averaged over 95% accuracy of performance. Thus, there was very little error in behavior with these experienced dancers. However, even within that tight range of accuracy, extremely obvious quality differences leapt to the raters’ attention.
On a practical basis, such Windowpanes typically shout themselves enough attention for even the most oblivious observer, but realize we’re dealing with an expert case here. All the dancers were extremely accurate in their moves and you had to notice the quality of the accuracy. It’s a bit like two pitchers who are striking out a lot of batters. A low quality pitcher would throw a lot of balls along with the strikes while a high quality pitcher would throw nothing but strikes. Both would get the same number of strikeouts, but the performance with fewer balls would be more valued.
So, the cognitive training load leads to very different quality outcomes among highly experienced dancers. If this was a standard verbal persuasion experiment, we’d be talking about some kind of measure of elaboration activity like thought listing and observe that Other Dancers in the Low Load condition had higher WATTage and engaged the Long Conversation in the Head compared to the Other Dancers in the High Load condition. Alas, this research team did not collect such elaboration measures so we’ve got to draw inferences about the cognitive work dancers did during marking versus full practice. We cannot draw a path diagram from elaboration moderator (type of practice) to WATTage to elaboration (thought listing during practice) to behavior quality. I’m willing to make that jete, for now.
Consider the implications of this.
The present results also have relevance for the field of embodied cognition. In particular, our results indicate competition for resources between thinking about the elements of a dance, on the one hand, and maintaining control over physical execution, on the other hand. As with any other cognitive activity, engaging in embodied cognition carries the risk of competition with other ongoing activities that demand cognitive resources.
Stated another way, the body can make cognitive demands that affect the amount and direction of issue relevant thinking. When the situation requires that Other Guys are moving in a coordinated and complex way, that behavior will make demands on cognition that have implications for behavior acquisition, performance standard, and cognition like the Long Conversation or attitude change. The body can be made an integral part of the mind’s operation. Now. How are the magneticians gonna get a dancer’s head in an fMRI machine during a sisson?
Consider practical persuasion.
If you’re selling a product or service that requires skilled behavioral management, you need to make sure your Other Guys mark while testing it rather than a full contact demo. If you’re working with athletes, actors, dancers, marking must be understood as both a great training tactic and elaboration moderator. Marking permits more WATTage for other operations.
If you want to offer verbal Arguments along with the product, make the Other Guy mark while testing the product; don’t let Them engage a full contact rehearsal. Again, you want to reduce the cognitive load with the physical activity so more WATTage remains for other tasks.
Now, this study is certainly a stretch for standard persuasion. (It does have interesting instructional applications, just pure behavior acquisition.) Conceptually I find this persuasion useful because it takes the General ELM and pushes it into new domains. WATTage is crucial not only to persuasion, but to everything that requires cognitive function. Anything that affects the Other Guys’ WATTage must be understood. We see in this dance that physical activity can function as an elaboration moderator which opens our eyes to both theoretical and practical possibilities.
Dance out of here with the Rite of Spring (YouTube).
Edward C. Warburton, Margaret Wilson, Molly Lynch, and Shannon Cuykendall. The Cognitive Benefits of Movement Reduction: Evidence From Dance Marking Psychological Science, first published on July 17, 2013