The Power of Backward Thinking

Monday, May 18, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Our bodies shape our emotions and thoughts and language. Just consider a few common phrases: He was a forward thinker. She is way ahead of her time. We are an advanced civilization. Like locomotion, our minds seem naturally to value what lies in front of us.

Psychologists think this powerful bias may have deep evolutionary roots. Forward motion is what our ancient ancestors did when they felt safe, unthreatened. When they confronted something aversive or perilous, they would retreat. Over eons our evolving brain added layer upon layer of emotion to these deep-wired impulses to approach and avoid.

A team of Dutch psychologists took this basic idea and ran with it. If avoidance and retreat have to do with danger, they wondered, is it possible that backward motion might actually recruit more brain power than forward motion? If threats are problems to be solved, shouldn’t actual and emotional retreat require greater concentration and attention? They decided to explore this possibility in the lab.

Psychologist Severine Koch and her colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen ran this simple experiment. They had volunteers walk just a few steps, either forward, backward, to the left or to the right. Then they immediately took the Stroop test. This is the test with the names of colors printed in different color inks; the word blue, for example, might be printed in blue—or it might be printed in red or yellow. The volunteers try very quickly to name the color of the ink rather than read the word. It’s cognitively very difficult to quash the impulse to read, so fast and accurate responses are taken as an indicator of focus and concentration.

The results, reported in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science, were intriguing. Those who had walked just a few steps backward were far more focused and attentive than were any of the others. That is, their physical retreat triggered increased mental control—presumably because of the ancient link between threat and vigilance. Confronted with a problem or difficulty, it made be advisable to take a step back and think about the situation—literally.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:39 PM


At 3:56 PM , Blogger Moeen H. said...

Isn't it possible that because walking backwards requires more concentration than walking forwards, the volunteers who walked back a few steps had their concentration levels heightened?

At 12:05 AM , Blogger michelle said...

oh, can i slightly and superficially disagree a little? i just do not see this entirely in such a deep way. Maybe a little distance resulted from physical retreat only blurried people's eyesights, therefore they can tell the color while ignoring the words.

At 1:49 PM , Blogger John said...

I agree with Moeen. "presumably because of the ancient link between threat and vigilance." seems like a pretty big presumption. Walking backward requires some effort and focus, that may leak over into the stroop test.