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Students took a test in which color words, like red, were sometimes printed in matching ink (like the word red written in red ink) and sometimes in another color (the word red written in blue ink).

The test was to quickly name the ink color, suppressing the natural tendency to read the word, immediately after walking four steps forward, backward or sideways. Each participant walked in each direction twice. When the color names and inks matched, reaction times for correct answers were similar no matter which way the students walked. But when color names didn’t correspond to inks, reaction times for correct answers were fastest after walking backward. Backward locomotion appears to be a very powerful trigger to mobilize cognitive resources, say the researchers.


Stepping backward isn’t an inborn trigger for increased mental control, but a learned one, notes social psychologist and study coauthor Severine Koch, PhD. “Over a lifetime, the movement is habitually performed in situations that require increased control, such as when people encounter a dangerous or difficult situation,” she explains. “Because of this associative link between backward movement and a vigilant state of mind, stepping backward seems to enhance cognitive functioning even in the absence of actual danger.”

Okay, so in modern life we’re not typically retreating from a lion and it’s not so realistic to be walking backward — but we certainly face other challenges that require intense concentration and enhanced mental capacity. Will stepping backward open the mind to new solutions? Dr. Koch said that the practical applications of this study require further research, but she speculates that people in jobs requiring constant alertness could benefit from avoidance movements. Meanwhile, you may want to take a step backward the next time you’re plagued by a problem.


Severine Koch, PhD, department of social and cultural psychology, Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

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